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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]
Antonín DVOŘÁK
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 full cry.

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 one.

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.

Dan Morgan



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