Antonin DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Symphony No.9 in E minor Op.95 'From the New World' (1895) [40:08]
Symphony No.8 in G major Op.88 (1889) [38:01]
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/František Stupka
rec. Smetana Hall, Prague 8 January 1959 (8), Domovina, Prague 6 January 1964 (9)
PRAGA DIGITALS PRD/DSD 350134 SACD [78:23]
In my ignorance I had never come across the work of conductor František Stupka before. In my defence, his presence in the recorded catalogue it pitifully small; aside from this disc, there are a couple of Supraphon recordings of the Tchaikovsky Pathetique & 1812, Dvořák Carnival & Cello concerto and a sprinkling of other works - all only available at inflated prices. Yet in 1919 he was appointed conductor of the Czech Philharmonic and over the next twenty years was instrumental in raising the standard of that orchestra to international excellence. But he was the moon to Vaclav Talich's sun and posterity has all but forgotten his role. Post-War he was instrumental in creating the Moravian Symphonic Orchestra but aside from archive radio recordings little if any of that fruitful collaboration survives.
So what could this near-unknown conductor possibly have to say about these two core repertoire symphonies that hasn’t already been said by more famous conductors of this or any other time? Well, and I say this with no desire for hyperbole or overstatement, I find these to be amongst the very best, most satisfying versions of these works I have ever heard, bar none. I often think that the popularity of these two wonderful, richly melodic symphonies clouds just how fine they are as technical compositions. By the time Dvořák came to write them he was a master of his craft, gifted with an extraordinary melodic inspiration and natural ear for orchestration and understanding of form. By the time Dvořák came to complete his most famous New World Symphony in 1895 Stupka was in his mid-teens. So without a doubt Stupka would have known and heard this music from its very earliest performances. 1895 was also the year Stupka enrolled at the Prague Conservatory as a violin pupil - having also qualified as a master blacksmith. By the new century he was making a career for himself in Russia where he worked until 1919, along the way being a founder member of the original Kocian String Quartet.
The two recordings here date from after his official retirement and are preserved radio recordings, No.8 comes from 1959 when Stupka was 80 and No.9 from 5 years later some eighteen months before his death. It is important to say straight away that the sound is pretty grim - it sounds like a fairly woolly off-air recording that has then been preserved on a crackly shellac disc. These performances have been available before on Panton but this new Praga Digitals iteration proudly claims to be a bi-channel SA-CD. Perhaps more technical people than I will be able to explain to me how something as low-fi as the source material here can be ‘improved’ by a SA-CD sprucing up. Usually I take little pleasure in listening to music-making through a snowstorm of noise and distortion but this is so fine that my usual caution fell away.
So what makes Strupka quite so remarkable? In the wonderful world of acronyms: K.I.S.S. Strupka has a very consistent approach across both symphonies and the six years between performances. Outer movements are brisk and muscular in the main allegro sections. However, Strupka is very willing to allow the tempo to pull right back for those wonderful lyrical Dvořák 2nd subjects. Strupka will prepare for these many bars out - there are never any indications in the scores to this effect. But, and this is also crucial, when those 2nd subjects arrive, Stupka handles them with utter simplicity; no affected phrasing, mannered dynamics or self conscious point-making. He allows the players - and what wonderful players the Czech Philharmonic are - just to play. His control of the basic pulse is very fluid and guided by the musical line. A sorrow is that the exposition repeat in No.9 is not observed. The famous Largo is no faster or slower than normal but after a wonderfully dark opening brass chorale the famous cor anglais melody again unfolds with the folk-like simplicity that surely Dvořák envisaged before it got hi-jacked by any number of sentimental interpretations. Avoidance of sentimentality is another key characteristic of both these performances. This is authentic Dvořák in the truest sense of the phrase. Not something worked out in a musical test-tube or intellectualised over in a thesis. Again, the third movement perfectly balances a vigorous outer scherzo against a liltingly affectionate trio. But rather than those two relative extremes of tempo jarring, Strupka finds a way of allowing one to flow organically into the other and back out again. The finale of the symphony brings a real sense of resolution and completion - again Strupka is quite willing to allow the tempo to ebb and flow as he feels serves the music - and this is always about serving the music not the conductor's ego. So that wonderful moment of musical theatre where the two great themes crash against each like a pair of warring titans really does register as the cathartic release it should be, with Strupka whipping the orchestra through the final bars until that final side-slip from Dvořák with the music dying away on the held woodwind chord. How many hundreds if not thousands of times must this orchestra have played these works? But here they sound fresh, engaged and on the front of their seats. Of course, how I wish the recording allowed more of the detail through and did not distort at crucial climaxes.
Symphony No.8 - placed after No.9 on the disc - receives a very similar performance in terms of conception and execution and with equally satisfying results. Interestingly, just when I thought Stupka might relish the portamenti slides in the violins that I had always thought were part of the Czech performing tradition in this work - 15 bars after letter F in the 3rd movement - there is not a hint of them. There is a short fragment of the very end of this symphony on YouTube in what I think is this same performance - www.youtube.com/watch?v=jxT3ppyNVPM - the final minute can be heard and seen after a voice over in Czech finishes. Brief though it may be it gives a good idea of Stupka's manipulation of the beat as well as his penchant - even at this very advanced age - for driving movements to thrilling and dynamic conclusions. Nothing is fussy, nothing is mannered - to make something this ‘simple’ takes a lifetime of work and knowledge and understanding. The unnecessary and excessive has been pared away. But it seems as though these characteristics were with Stupka from early in his career; the liner - which contains more biography about him than I was able to find anywhere on the web in English - quotes a review from 1926; “Stupka is the type of conductor who takes his place as an equal amongst equals within the orchestra - a leading but not dominating instrument. He is completely absorbed by the idea of orchestral performance.” And so it sounds more than thirty years later when these performances were given.
The catalogue contains many excellent performances of both these justly popular works and I enjoy many of them. Interestingly, prior to hearing this disc one of my favourite performances was from Vaclav Neumann’s first cycle with the Czech Philharmonic - No.9 would have been recorded less than a decade after this Strupka and they share much of the same drama and drive. Neumann's studio recording is far better as a recording and allows the detail through that is sadly lost over the radio for Strupka. Ancerl’s No.9 is cut from a similar cloth too although he is less affectionate in the lyrical passages. The reason Stupka’s performances chime so ideally with my “inner ear” is that he finds the perfect balance between the lyrical and the dramatic. Of course, others may prefer a more nuanced, graduated or cultured view but I hear the essence of Dvořák to be a directness of utterance, an unaffected honesty that these versions enshrine. Add to that the absolute ‘rightness’ of the Czech Philharmonic sound and these are - to my ear at least - performances of modest perfection.
I have never included an historical disc in my 'disc of the year' choice. Time for a change - performances of disarming insight and unaffected brilliance.