The NHK Symphony sounds altogether better here — much more like the first-class group of reputation — than in their 1978 concerts under Václav Neumann (King International KKC 2051), which I recently reviewed
. In those later performances, the brasses could sound rough or tinny, to the point that I questioned the quality of their instruments; here they're smooth and full, supplying power and incisiveness as needed. The reed choir is blended and refined, yet solos are full of character. The strings are, once again, of high quality. Finally, although the ensemble sounded uncomfortable in the mostly Slavic repertoire in 1978, here they prove adept at, and assured in, a variety of "ethnic" music — not an Austro-German score in the lot.
The Romanian conductor Constantin Silvestri amassed a wide-ranging discography in the early days of stereo, but is less well-known today. Stateside, few of those productions ever even saw lower-price LP reissue, although his EMI recordings were eventually collected in a 15-CD set on Warner/EMI Classics Icon 723347 2; see also the 10 CD set on Disky 707432 and Nimbus NI6124
. His interpretive temperament was "Romantic", given to impulsive accelerations, taking unmarked holds and liberally using agogics to underscore important arrival points.
Of the two symphonies offered here, the New World
comes off better, in a performance that's more polished, if less idiomatic, than was Neumann's. The opening is unusually sustained, with a protracted rest after the second phrase. The syncopated string octaves remain slow, heavy rather than driving; only with the woodwind phrases does the music approach the conventional tempo. The Allegro
moves buoyantly — the horns begin slightly faster than everyone else — with Silvestri holding all three themes to a taut basic pulse. The brasses "ease into" the opening chord of the Largo
, which flows easily, evoking introspection through its dark colours, rather than by a slow pace. The conductor takes an unmarked fermata on the cellos' low note — too long to maintain tension — before the Poco meno mosso
; extended pauses also precede the movement's final low string chords. Silvestri moves attacca
into the Scherzo
, to bracing effect, but can't maintain the initial momentum for long; his transition into the Trio
is purposeful and expressive although the actual landing is a bit tentative. The Finale
's first theme comes with whiplash punctuations ŕ la
Toscanini; a sour attack at 5:42 mars its mournful return. The coda feels almost frantic — though the conductor maintains good control — and then fatigue sets in: the quiet horn calls nag slightly under pitch, and Silvestri holds the final wind chord so long that the players falter.
Pronounced agogic hesitations in the opening brass motto herald a musical but fussy Tchaikovsky Fourth. The Moderato con anima
is measured and weighted; there's a tenuto
on the woodwinds' first upbeat, and a fumbled accompaniment or two. The exposition's climax is incisive; the development is exciting, though chaos occasionally threatens, and another agogic at the motto theme's return interrupts the hurtling momentum. The bassoonist suffers a stuck key while launching the second-subject recap. In the Andantino
, the textures around the cellos' statement ooze, and Silvestri's manipulations in the return cause a few tentative attacks and uneasy landings. The Scherzo
begins reasonably, but the faster speed for the woodwind theme ultimately reduces the quick notes to a gabble. In the Finale
, after the opening flourishes, the conductor immediately pushes the first theme faster, which may be disconcerting; the movement is gripping in its way.
The shorter works exhibit the same tension between flowing, expressive phrasing and self-conscious effects. The Capriccio espagnol
offers a bright, brisk opening; an unusually grim reading of the 3/4 episode; a buoyant Fandango
, interrupted by a clumsy agogic at 11:58; and a hectic windup. Silvestri brings out the turbulence of Midsommarvaka
, but fails to bind its disparate episodes into a unified arc. There are no problems, however, with the cheerful Roumanian Rhapsody
; and the lively, unmannered Slavonic Dance
whizzes along, relaxing just slightly for the contrasting section.
The reproduction is variable. The Dvořák and Rimsky-Korsakov sound dry, but clean and focused. In the Tchaikovsky, the brass choir registers with splendid depth, although the high trumpets are a bit edgy. The opening tutti
chord of the Slavonic Dance
, on the other hand, is a harsh, unmusical din. Once again, the booklet, save for the front cover and a note on the orchestra's history, is in Japanese only.
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.