There are two dark horses among Dvořák Symphony Cycles on CD (a listing of all of which can be found
here), as far as I am concerned. One is Witold Rowicki’s, which despite being issued on a major label languished for many years on three loveless Philips Twofers until Decca finally gave it the neat little box it deserved. The other one is this one, Otmar Suitner’s with the Berlin Staatskapelle, originally issued on Eterna and its successor, Berlin Classics… and now restored on Brilliant Classics, together with the tone poems and orchestral pieces, though curiously not Suitner’s (who has recorded at least some of these pieces) but Brilliant’s own recordings with Theodore Kuchar and the Janáček PO. For the Slavonic Dances, those of Antal Doráti and his Bambergers from the 1970s are drafted into service. Otmar Suitner, who died five years ago, was an Austrian, a student of Clemens Krauss, whose career bloomed in the GDR where he was the chief conductor first of the Dresden State Opera and then the Berlin State Opera. That accounts for some of the lack of fame, I suppose.
Now, since this must be the third re-issue, at the very least, it seems only right to engage in
a little meta-reviewism: It’s a favorite of David Hurwitz’s at Classics Today: “Otmar Suitner’s Dvorák unquestionably ranks with the very best, right up there with Kertész, Kubelik, and Rowicki. He secures absolutely gorgeous playing from the Staatskapelle Berlin, with glowing string textures and a truly Czech character from the woodwinds and all of the performances are beautifully recorded….”. James Leonard (AllMusic) offers a contrasting opinion: “There are certainly worse recordings of the [Dvořák Symphonies…,] but this set by Otmar Suitner and the Staatskapelle Berlin is so much less appealing than the truly great performances—the glorious István Kertész, the fabulous Rafael Kubelik, and the magnificent Witold Rowicki—that it is impossible to recommend.” Rob Cowan, in his Gramophone obituary wrote: “As to Suitner’s orchestral discography, perhaps the best examples of his fresh, spontaneous conducting style are a verdant and musically gripping complete Dvořák symphony cycle and a series that covers virtually all of the major Mozart symphonies.”
And our own review, courtesy Rob Barnett, chimes in: “[R]ecord collectors intent on a complete set of Dvořák Symphonies could go to Kubelik on DG, to Rowicki on Philips and to Kertész on Decca. Kertész always scored high and his is a desirable set multiply reissued. I have a great deal of time for Rowicki’s cycle but here comes Suitner slightly later in the day than the other three with an enthusiastic if slightly stern Germanic cycle” He comments positively on every performance (if not always the works themselves) and concludes that “[Suitner’s Ninth is] one of the most loving and unglamorous versions I have heard; a cleansing draught alongside the lassitude of many more famous readings…” before exhorting us not to “disdain this collection.” Which confuses me a little, because there was no question of his review ever leading a reader toward disdain. Also, what does not-disdaining a recording entail? Is it a “don’t-necessarily-run-to-your-record-shop-to-get-this-but-if-you-happen-to-seek-shelter-in-it-during-a-storm-or-need-to-use-its-bathroom-desperately -you-might-want-to-pick-this-one-up-along-the-way”-kind of recommendation? Letting the principle of charity go to work, I presume he means: Don’t dismiss it out of hand only because it is surrounded by more famous alternatives.
My own first cycle was István Kertész, too, although I’ve moved away a little from that, and towards Rowicki and the analog, 70s cycle of Václav Neumann on Supraphon instead. These are currently my two recommended cycles and Suitner wouldn’t make that list; so much up front. But he makes it almost in the same way Kubelik almost makes it (and that’s surely good company). It’s decidedly an underrated cycle and decidedly a perfectly good choice for a first or even only cycle to have. It’s the Classics Today opinion that rings truest to me and I would underline the “spontaneous” remark from Cowan.
Because of our lack of familiarity with the early symphonies of Dvořák (or the over-exposure of the late ones), invariably the reviewer of a complete set (well, I do, at least) gets side-tracked by how lovely or at least lovably strange these works are, and how worthy they are of hearing and, in most cases, would be, of performing in the concert halls. Well, they are and that’s why I spent more time with some of those than their more famous younger brethren. The Finale of the Third Symphony, extremely vivacious, proves a little too much for the sound quality and crackles almost as if these recordings were transfers from an LP. But that’s OK, given how much more it bristles than most recordings (Ivan Anguélov/Oehms, comes to mind, who plays this rather more along beautifully-genteel lines) especially its “particularly lively and almost impudent finale” (Barnett).
The Fourth Symphony has always been Wagner-without-Words to me (something that might similarly apply to the Third). It is a good thing that this symphony wasn’t published until after Dvořák’s career and reputation had been well established: He would have been bunged in with the Wagnerians right away, and dragged into a conflict that would probably have harmed him quite a bit, despite Brahms going to bat for the composer. The reading here is fine, but not perhaps good enough to convince skeptics that the Fourth is worth their consideration. This, I think, is a symphony where I will turn to Kertesz, actually. The finale of the Fifth reminds me of an opera Weber never wrote. It was once the “Third”, published with the fake opus number “76”, sometime afterwards the Sixth and Seventh (then called the “First” and “Second”, respectively). This even-keeled, mature, and charming work is perhaps the most criminally neglected of the Dvořák Symphonies. Writing about it in a concert review of Franz Welser-Möst conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, I wrote:
“Clearly unburdened by the symphonists that came before him, you can’t—thankfully—hear the shadow of Beethoven hover above Dvořák’s Fifth. If anything—although this is a tricky matter—you can hear Haydn channeled through someone superbly familiar with the writing of Wagner. But then everyone seems to hear in Dvořák what they wish to; like Jesus he reveals whatever the listener expects to hear from him. A Brahmsian, a Wagnerian, a quintessential Bohemian voice, the first American Symphonist… To some extent all that (except the ‘American’ claims, for which there isn’t any basis) is understandable, because there’s a little of all of that in one or more of his heterogeneous symphonies. Whether it is helpful in understanding his symphonic body is another question…”
Suitner doesn’t have the transparency that I remember Welser-Möst’s interpretation to have had. But then he has more forward momentum, more gritty thrust, and appeals to the middle regions more than making this symphony (unnecessarily) cerebral. The Sixth, one of the great symphonies, is well performed and captivating, even if the playing isn’t technically flawless. The flubs aren’t such that you will likely remember and anticipate them (which is what makes a flub on disc disturbing), but you will know yourself how much value you place on note-perfection. The fine Seventh falls right into this mould of unspectacular excellence; the Eighth surprised me with its very coy beginning. Here we don’t get the heavy-booted, brooding romanticism we might expect, but a friendly first, very light step into the symphony that colors your perception throughout and lifts your heart. I can’t name you an Eighth off the top of my head that I’d rather listen to. The Ninth is a good and worthy conclusion to this set… and I rather agree with Barnett (if with a shade less enthusiasm) who hears “one of the most loving and unglamorous versions…; a cleansing draught alongside the lassitude of many more famous readings. The finale leans into four-square rhythmic discipline to set beside the countryside japes.” As a stand-alone recording it wouldn’t get my recommendation, though. That would be Andris Nelson’s recent recording with those above-mentioned Bavarians who are helped by state-of-the-art sound.
The set of Symphonic Poems and Symphonic Overtures which Brilliant grafts onto the Suitner Symphonies (minus the Rhapsody op.18 and the Dramatic Overture) is that of Theodore Kuchar and it has been reviewed on these pages before: Jonathan Woolf came down with a lukewarm, non-committal verdict. I’m closer aligned to the description of the set as “extremely graphic and richly evocative” (David Hurwitz), and find that the set gets carried to the exciting finish-line by enthusiasm… if not technique or refinement. If you can’t have both (and you rarely can and not at all, to my knowledge, in a complete set of these works), that’s the preferable failing. To employ Classics Today’s Hurwitz again, with whom I seem to share Dvořák predilections: “the sheer gusto of the playing carries the day and trumps all minor qualms.” One example, where I suspected Kuchar to be a little flat-footed compared to my hitherto favorite recording, is the Spinning Wheel. But no, this comes off very nicely, indeed. And yes, Harnoncourt (the—now former—favorite) is neater, cleaner and holding sway over an altogether more smoothly whirring apparatus. But he is no more exciting. The Mendelssohn-esque bits (Symphony No.2, 55 years older) come out very nicely with Kuchar, too, which is something I listen for, partly because I love that symphony so much. Although they sound different from the Suitner Symphonies (a little thinner in the orchestra and a little clearer in the recording), this is a worthy coupling.
The Slavonic Dances come in Antal Doráti’s third (second?) recording, here with the Bamberg Symphony. (He’s also recorded them with Minnesota for Mercury and with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on Decca.) That’s an idiomatic choice as the Bamberg Symphony (now sub-titled the “Bavarian State Philharmonic” to aid the flow of necessary subsidies to this world-class provincial orchestra) was certainly still Germany’s “Czech Orchestra” in the 1970s when these recordings were made and issued on Vox. (They can also be had singly on Alto, these days.) The players were mostly members of the former German Philharmonic Orchestra of Prague.
It’s a pleasant duty to listen to these, as the boom and the wide acoustic come down on the ears. It’s the biggest sound of any Slavonic Dances I’ve heard (bigger—not better— even than Pletnev, DG and nearly as broad and brighter), awesome to the point where one suspects engineering help. The basses are resonant like you wouldn’t believe and there’s a real three-dimensional, very deep soundstage to the recording. (It’s not exactly high-fidelity, quality-wise, but there must have been remastering going on, since their Vox days.) James Leonhard comments: “Dorati pushes the Bamberg players so far beyond themselves they seem possessed by the souls of Bohemians.”
A few exceptions apart (including the fastest last of the op.46 Dances), it’s a bit “Slavonic Dances to Relax To”, which is good if you want some broad fun. But there will be moments where you’ll want a bit of a kick to the proceedings, especially if you know some of the golden oldies like Kubelik’s Vienna recording with a wild and furiously driven Vienna Philharmonic that plays every note as if it wanted to induce applause in one half of its listeners and heart attacks in the other. Doráti’s Mercury recording of these works has more oompah-band friendliness to it; this is philharmonic splendor which lacks that approachability in favor of impressiveness.
Of course everyone and their grandmother has recorded these superlative fun works, including (to name some of the classic and best) Iván Fischer (Philips/Channel,
review), Rafael Kubelik (stereo, DG or mono, Decca), George Szell (Sony), Václav Neumann I (Warner-Apex,
review), and the more controversially received late Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Teldec/Warner,
review). I’m not going to compare every one of these, but I did take the second recording of Václav Neumann’s Slavonic Dances with the Czech Philharmonic (part on the superb Supraphon “Dvořák Orchestral Works and Concertos” Box) and gave them a closer listen. They are livelier and have more bite instead of glow, but the recording quality—despite the 1985 recording date—isn’t near to that offered by the luxuriant sumptuous Bambergers. Instead it’s just a tad too scratchy and sounds only a little better than the mono Kublik but with less of a kick. What to make of it? I’m happy with many recordings, including this, as long as I can go back to the early Kubelik every so often and to Pletnev and his wondrous strange approach (very occasionally), also.
Jens F. Laurson
MusicWeb International reviews of Dvořák Symphony Cycles
José Serebrier’s Dvořák Cycle here. (Gwyn Parry-Jones)
Vacláv Neumann’s first, 70s cycle on Supraphon here. (Christopher Howell)
No other complete cycles seem to have been reviewed, but
István Kertész’ first third of the whole nine yards here, at least. (Colin Clarke)
CD 1 [43:09]
Symphony No. 1 in CO minor, The Bells of Zlonice (1865) [43:09]
CD 2 [77:29]
Symphony No. 2 in B flat major op.4 (1865) [45:23]
Symphony No. 3 in E flat major op.10 (1873) [32:06]
CD 3 [75:27]
Symphony No. 4 in D minor op.13 (1874) [38:46]
Symphony No. 5 in F major op.76 (1875) [36:41]
CD 4 [78:13]
Symphony No. 6 in D major op.60 (1880) [41:26] Symphony No. 7 in D minor op.70 (1885) [36:47]
CD 5 Symphony No. 8 in G major op.88 (1889) [35:20] Symphony No. 9 in E minor op.95 “From the New World” (1893) [41:54]
CDs 6 – 9 [71:37] [63:12] [66:14] [68:00]
Czech Suite op.39 [22:01]
My Home Overture op.62 [9:04]
Hussite Overture op.67 [12:35]
In Nature’s Realm Overture op.91 [13:45]
Othello op.93 [14:08]
Symphonic Variations op.78 [20:33]
Carnival Overture op.92 [8:53]
Water Goblin op.107 [20:06]
Noon-Day Witch op.108 [13:38]
Golden Spinning Wheel, op.109 [26:18]
Wood Dove, op.110 [20:10]
A Hero´s Song, op.111 [19:44]