Antonin DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
The Complete Symphonies
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Jiří Bělohlávek
rec. Rudolfinum, Prague 2014
Director: Adam Rezek
Includes: Documentary, Images of Dvořák by Barbara Willis Sweete and an introduction to each symphony by Jiří Bělohlávek
TV Format 16:9 – NTSC; Sound PCM Stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1. Languages Czech Subtitles; English, German Region Code 0
EUROARTS DVD 2072828 [5 DVDs: 8˝ hours & 80 min documentary]

These performances were filmed by Czech Television in the Dvořák Hall at the Rudolfinum in Prague in 2014. The complete symphonic cycle is thus available directed by the country’s leading conductor, leading its greatest orchestra of which he is chief conductor and Music Director.

Each symphony is prefaced by an affable chat between Jiri Bělohlávek and his genial but charmingly perceptive interlocutor, Marek Eben. Some conceits are present, the two men’s eyes twinkling when some prearranged conversational topic appears. Bělohlávek often explains passages by sitting down at an upright piano and running through themes and harmonies. These introductions vary in length – that for the First Symphony, with its quota of Bachian polyphony, for instance, is longer than that for the Second. The conductor makes a valiant case in denying that the opening of the Third Symphony sounds like Rienzi. The thorny question of the symphonies’ numbering is addressed pithily, whilst composer’s busts, rocking chairs, bottles of red wine and toy trains make their appearance – all (largely) germane to the musico-biographical questions, it should be added. A word of counsel: set your viewing option to ‘wide’ not ‘smart’ – otherwise the English subtitles will be lost at the bottom of the screen.

The locations for some of the travelogue scenes are the National Museum, the Museum of Czech Music, the Dvořák memorials at Zlonice and at Vysoká, the Station of Young Technicians in Prague, and the parishes of Kralupy nad Vltavou and Zlonice.

The camera work for the concerts themselves is extensive; there are the expected shots of string, wind and brass choirs and concentration on individual orchestral soloists, as well as the hard working percussion section. As the double basses are ranged at the back of the orchestra and not bunched up to one side, their powerful presence is frequently unmissable; the violas sit to the conductor’s right.

The concerts took place over a period of time in 2014, and it’s noticeable that the personnel changes. However, what is more disconcerting is that the personnel changes within individual symphonies. Thus the musician who shares the desk of the orchestra’s brilliant young leader, Josef Spaček, manages to change sex in the space of a few bars in the Ninth Symphony. I’m not sure who the man is but the woman is Irena Herjnová. The reason must be that repeat performances were given during which multiple camera angles were used and in the editing a sweeping pan shot, taken from in front of the orchestra, is often introduced from a second performance – hence the co-leader’s apparent change of sex. Elsewhere in this symphonic canon, wind players change too – notably the oboe players and the bassoon. And sometimes the players use German trumpets, sometimes straight American ones. Little things like this shouldn’t worry me, but these small details accumulate and show that not all these performances are played straight-through but are, even to a small degree, composites.

Very occasionally there is a frenetic aspect to the editing of the camera angles. That for the First Symphony, admittedly a very long work and the only one the composer never heard performed, has a somewhat hyperventilating quality. The contrapuntal camera work in the long march of the Third Symphony, by comparison, works much better; experiments in contrapuntal camera work are invariably better when the music is slow – otherwise the surfeit of angles and orchestral choirs is far too busy and irritating.

From Symphony No.6 onwards Bělohlávek dispenses with a score. This wily practitioner can be seen before a concert nervously sipping water and putting the final touches to his white tie and tails. One can feel the tension building, as flunkeys give him the time. Backstage detail such as this is rare, though we do see a rehearsal segment when members of the orchestra are interviewed. This is augmented by an 80-minute documentary, which outlines the nature of this two-year project. Some of the principals are interviewed, the conductor talking both in his native language and also in English. Antonin Dvořák III talks with Bělohlávek in Vysoka, the composer’s country home. A long segment shows rehearsals for the First Symphony.

If you want a visual record of the symphonies, these excellent performances, capably recorded, will prove very satisfying.

Jonathan Woolf
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