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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841‒1904)
Symphonic Variations, Op.78 [21:21]
Slavonic Rhapsodies, Op.45/1‒3 [39:07]
PKF ‒ Prague Philharmonia/Jakub Hrůša
rec. Forum Karlín, Prague, Czech Republic, January 2015
Reviewed as standard CD
PENTATONE PTC5186554 SACD [60:28]

Uniquely, as far as I can tell, this disc couples two works written during a seminal period relatively early in Dvořák’s career: the decidedly Brahmsian Symphonic Variations of 1877, and the much folksier set of three Slavonic Rhapsodies from 1878. The performers are seasoned Dvořákians, already responsible for several other recordings of works by the great Czech master – all of which are helpfully listed in Brian Wilson’s parallel MusicWeb review of this CD.

Wilson is quite right, I think, to regard Hrůša’s Symphonic Variations as “slightly less than top-rate”, and to rate his Slavonic Rhapsodies more highly ‒ though in truth I found myself unable to shake off a sense of mild disappointment with regard to the programme as a whole. I have always thought of Hrůša, in concert and on disc, as a decidedly dynamic conductor, but it is precisely that element of dynamism that is lacking here. His interpretations are idiomatic, well-paced, affectionate – but, well, not especially distinctive, and all a bit low-key. That impression might in part be the fault of the recording, which was made in a resonant acoustic that obscures certain details; but it is not the fault of his orchestra. Yes, the moderately sized Prague Philharmonia can occasionally sound a mite under-nourished in the Symphonic Variations, but their playing is consistently alert and beautiful, and their woodwind soloists are mellifluous and characterful in what seems still to be the Czech way – one notices this especially in, say, the First Rhapsody or in variations 1, 5 and 6 of the Symphonic Variations. The concertmaster also makes a fine fist of his important solo in variation 12; and overall the orchestra conveys a certain authentic Slavonic ‘tang’ which gives great pleasure.

Throughout all this, though, Hrůša, remains strangely earthbound. I compared his Symphonic Variations not with Sir Charles Mackerras, as Brian Wilson did, but rather with the classic Decca version featuring István Kertész and the LSO; and the differences were greater than I had anticipated. Quite simply, Kertész offers both greater atmosphere and more visceral excitement. Moreover Hrůša’s account of the best known of the three Rhapsodies, the Third, lacks something in sheer pizzazz beside other performances I have heard, for example Antal Dorati’s with the Detroit Symphony – though I did enjoy many individual touches, such as Hrůša’s harpist’s poetic playing of the work’s opening, with its clear echoes of Smetana’s Vyšehrad. Perhaps the most consistently persuasive performance on the new disc is that of the First Rhapsody, whose especially strong indebtedness to Czech folk music plays firmly to these musicians’ strengths.

All in all, then, this is a good disc, rather than a world-beater. It’s also at full price, but contains barely an hour of music – leaving space, you would have thought, for an additional Dvořák work that Hrůša has yet to record (the Scherzo Capriccioso? The Noonday Witch?). If you want this specific coupling, the disc is recommendable. Otherwise, you can certainly get cheaper performances of the Variations that are every bit as good; and, in the Rhapsodies, Hrůša doesn’t really eclipse the Naxos version conducted (pace Brian Wilson) by Zdenék Košler ‒ which comes attractively, if not over-generously coupled with the early Rhapsody in A minor, Op. 14, in a cracking performance under Libor Pešek. Hrůša is a major talent, but, for whatever reason, seems a tad below his best here.

Nigel Harris

Previous review: Brian Wilson



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