Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Symphony No. 8 in G major, Op. 88 (1889) [37:50]
Josef SUK (1875-1935)
Serenade for Strings in E flat major, Op. 6 (1892) [25:40]
Carnival overture (1891) [9:45]
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Mariss Jansons
rec. live, 29-30 January 2016, Philharmonie im Gasteig, Munich (Dvořák); studio, 25 January 2016 (Suk)
BR KLASSIK 900145 [73:15]
Having just reviewed
Yannick Nézet-Séguin and these Bavarians in Mahler 1 – and been
reminded what a fine orchestra this is – I was extra keen to hear
this Jansons disc. He and the BRSO have certainly been busy in recent
years, as a quick trawl of our review pages will confirm. Dvořák
isn’t particularly well represented in this conductor’s
discography; he recorded a selection of symphonies and overtures for
EMI between 1988 and 1992 – reissued on Brilliant
Classics – but he seems rather fond of the Eighth. He recorded
it with the Berliner Philharmoniker on a tour of Japan in 2000 (Euroarts)
and with the Concertgebouw in 2008 (RCO Live RCO10001).
Mention Dvořák and one thinks of the Czech conductor Rafael Kubelik,
whose BP set of the symphonies is one of his finest achievements (Deutsche
Grammophon). He casts a long shadow where the music of his homeland
is concerned, as I was so forcefully reminded when I reviewed
Jakub Hrůša’s recent set of Dvořák overtures. The
latter has also recorded Suk’s popular Serenade for Strings,
but my comparative version here is from Daniel Myssyk and the Orchestre
de Chambre Appassionata (Fidelio
Musique). For the symphony I’ve selected Jansons’ Concertgebouw
account and Kubelik’s; for the overture I’ve chosen Kubelik
again, this time with ‘his’ Bavarians (DG).
I started by listening to Jansons’ Amsterdam Eighth. It’s
part of a 2-CD set that includes the Requiem, and the well-upholstered
recording comes as a relief after the fierce, rather wiry sound of the
Kubelik. The timps in the Allegro con brio are impressive and
Jansons shapes the music reasonably well. Happily, there’s rather
less of the micro-management that I’ve associated with this conductor
since his Oslo Tchaikovsky cycle from the 1980s (Chandos). Yes, the
bucolic Adagio swoops and swoons too much, but otherwise it’s
alert and atmospheric.
If you like your Dvořák well sprung you’ll warm to this performance;
then again, Kubelik has a very special way with these folk tunes, even
if he seems rather brisk at times. Indeed, I sometimes find him a little
rushed – his finale proceeds at quite a lick – but the Berliners
take it all in their stride. Even allowing for the brighter, shallower
sound Kubelik's Eighth has a free-wheeling aspect – ohne
bremse, as it were - that Jansons and his Dutch players can’t
match. After all that ease and spontaneity Jansons’ Allegretto
feels awkward; also, those timp figures are rather contrived and momentum
tends to flag thereafter.
So, does the move to Munich make much of a difference? From the symphony’s
opening theme it’s clear this is a performance with more drive
and character. As I discovered with Nézet-Séguin's Mahler 1 the
BRSO are in great shape, and the alacrity and bounce they bring to the
opening movement makes the Concertgebouw seem portly by comparison.
More important, there’s a greater sense of ebb and flow, and that
makes for a more varied and interesting performance. Just listen to
those agile pizzicati and thrill to the bite of this band in
The Adagio is less mannered than before and the dances are
nimbler. There’s geniality and affection too, but sharp-eared
listeners will hear a fair bit of grunting from the podium. That said,
the Allegretto seems more supple this time around, with some
sparkling contributions from the woodwinds. Jansons can’t resist
a bit of bend and tweak, but otherwise his finale has plenty of get
up and go. And although the Gasteig recording is decent, it’s
nowhere near as good as that provided for Nézet-Séguin in the Herkulessaal.
This is a much better Eighth, but it’s still not a frontrunner
in this crowded field. The same goes for Jansons’ Carnival
overture, which is comfortably eclipsed by Kubelik’s; the
latter's performance is on a terrific DG set of the overtures
and Slavonic Dances. At less than a tenner from the usual outlets
it’s an indispensable bargain. Good sound, too.
Josef Suk’s reputation still seems to rest on his large-scale
pieces, such as Praga and the Asrael Symphony, yet
his smaller ones possess a delicacy and charm that may surprise the
unwary listener. The Serenade for Strings, composed at Dvořák’s
behest, is one such delight. Jansons’ account of the Andante
con moto has warmth and elegance, but some may find it needs a
lighter touch. Ditto the Allegro ma non troppo, which never
quite gets off the ground. That said, the Adagio has a tremulous
beauty that’s very well caught, but you’d be hard-pressed
to find much giocoso in Jansons' lugubrious finale.
After that the Orchestre de Chambre Appassionata performance –
coupled with Dvořák’s Serenade and Notturno
– comes as a shock, albeit a pleasant one. The playing may be
light and lean, but it also has a gorgeous glow; as for the recording
it’s so liberating after BR Klassik’s rather cloying one.
Textures and timbres are ravishing, and there’s a proportion and
poise here that seems ideal. The Adagio has a hushed loveliness
that’s most affecting and the finale is both animated and elegant.
By contrast the BRSO performance sounds awfully earnest, even slightly
dour. Myssyk certainly has the subtle touch that the piece needs; more
important, he’s a quiet, steady presence rather than a meddling
Jansons has never struck me as a very charismatic conductor, and I find
much of his work is respectable rather than revelatory. True, that early
Tchaikovsky set has its moments – his account of the Second Symphony
is still one of the best in the catalogue – and his RCO
Mahler is pretty good, too. That said, his recordings often leave
me feeling curiously underwhelmed; that’s certainly the case here.
The Dvořák is nimble, the Suk ponderous; variable sonics.