Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Symphonic Variations, Op.78, B70 (1877) [21:21]
Slavonic Rhapsodies, Op.45/1-3, B86 (1878) [39:07]
PKF Prague Philharmonic/Jakub Hrůša
rec. Forum Karlín, Prague, Czech Republic, January 2015. DDD/DSD
PENTATONE PTC5186554 SACD [60:28]
Reviewed as 24/96 download with pdf booklet from eclassical.com.
This is the third part of Pentatone’s trilogy of Dvořák recordings from the PKF Prague Philharmonic and Jakub Hrůša. The earlier releases were of the Cello Concerto (PTC5186488, with Lalo: Recording of the Month – review) and five Overtures (PTC5186532 – review). He has also recorded very fine accounts of the ‘American’ Suite in A (SU38822, with Josef Suk Serenade and Scherzo Fantastique), the Dvořák and Suk Serenades (SU39322) and the Czech Suite, Polonaise and Waltzes (SU38672) for Supraphon.
Those earlier Pentatone releases met with very different responses here on MusicWeb, with the Cello Concerto becoming not only Recording of the Month but also Recording of the Year, while Dan Morgan thought the overtures dispiriting and lacking in personality – review. De gustibus non est disputandum: I made the overture album my Recording of the Month: life-enhancing music with performances to match any that I’ve heard – Download News 2016/3.
I included the likes of Karel Ančerl and Vaclav Talich in comparing the overtures and it’s those two doyens of the Czech repertoire that I had in mind for the Symphonic Variations but as neither of these remains available I turned to adopted Czech Sir Charles Mackerras, with the LPO on their own label, with Symphony No.8 – review – DL News August 2011/2 – or on Supraphon (SU40412: Life with Czech Music: Smetana and Dvořák, 6 CDs for around £30 but on offer as I write for £21.61). The latter was my Bargain of Bargains in Download News 2013/10 but all good things must end and the 7digital download has now risen from £7.99 to a ridiculous £49.99. Even the Qobuz download is not very attractively priced at £27.99 but at least it comes with the booklet.
Mackerras conducts the Czech Philharmonic and that fits what the title page of the score specifies: Symphonische Variationen über ein Originalthema für grosses Orchester (Symphonic Variations on an original theme for large orchestra – my emphasis). Much as I thought that the overtures in no way suffered from the smaller PRK orchestra, I did find some lack of weight this time right from the opening statement of the theme. The smaller forces do allow Hrůša to adopt a slightly faster tempo overall than Mackerras on either of his recordings but the music loses a little of its character in the process and I found myself less engaged than usual with one of my favourite works, though the ebullient account of the finale made up to a considerable extent.
The Slavonic Rhapsodies fare much better than the Variations, with lively but affectionate performances which held my attention and enjoyment right up to the ending of No.3. The rousing account of that Rhapsody and the delicate treatment of its final chords exemplify these performances. As the Rhapsodies account for more than half of the programme you may think it worth accepting a slightly less than top-rate Variations as a small price to pay, especially as competition is far less fierce in the Rhapsodies. Of single-CD versions only Libor Pešek on Naxos 8.550610 and Tomaš Brauner on Arco Diva UP0171-2 031 – review – present a real challenge. Both these are coupled with Rhapsody in a minor and the Arco Diva is available from MusicWeb at an attractive price. Any one of these, Hrůša, Pešek or Brauner, would make a fine addition to a Dvořák collection which already contains the basics. Those basics would include the New World Symphony and at least its two predecessors plus the Slavonic Dances.
I listened to the streamed version from Qobuz, who also offer the booklet, while the eclassical was downloading. Good as that sounds, the 24-bit download is superior. Unlikely as it may seem, I actually liked the Symphonic Variations rather more in the higher format – no doubt because the performance had begun to grow on me, though the better quality may have helped. At present the 24-bit costs the same as 16-bit ($10.88) but even when that rises by about 50% it’s still attractively priced, though less so for post-Brexit UK purchasers.
In the booklet Hrůša writes of his love of Dvořák and of his belief that the Slavonic Rhapsodies deserve to be valued ‘right alongside his Slavonic Dances’. Without going quite that far I agree that he gives very persuasive accounts of the Rhapsodies. If the performance of the Symphonic Variations is not quite of the same quality, it certainly doesn’t put this recording out of the running. It joins the Naxos and Arco Diva recordings as my top choice for the Slavonic Rhapsodies.
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