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Antonin DVORÁK (1841-1904)
Complete Symphonies [387:38]
Requiem, Op. 89 [94:25]
Serenade in D minor, Op. 44 [24:16]
Scherzo capriccioso, Op. 66 [11:50]
Symphonic Variations, Op. 78 [23:19]
My Home, Op. 62 [9:34]
Husitská, Op. 67 [14:11]
In Nature’s Realm, Op. 91 [13:32]
Carnival, Op. 92 [9:03]
Othello, Op. 93 [14:56]
The Water Goblin, Op. 107 [19:32]
The Noonday Witch, Op. 108 [13:46]
The Golden Spinning Wheel, Op. 109 [26:25]
Pilar Lorengar (soprano); Erzsébet Komlóssy (mezzo-soprano)
Róbert Ilosfalvy (tenor); Tom Krause (baritone)
The Ambrosian Singers/John McCarthy
London Symphony Orchestra/István Kertész
rec. 1963-70, Kingsway Hall, London
24-bit 96kHz remastering
DECCA 483 0744 [9CDs & BD-A: 662:27]

Recently Decca has been reissuing iconic recordings from its back-catalogue in various formats, the common factor being a Blu-ray Audio (BD-A) disc, either on its own or with CDs, deriving from the same 24-bit 96kHz remastering. I may be wrong, but it appears from the timing of these reissues that Decca was testing the market for BD-A only releases, and has maybe found it’s better to hedge its bets by releasing both types of media together. For those like me who already have most of these recordings in their previous CD incarnations, it’s a bit of an inconvenience if you just want the BD-A. Oh, but you say, surely the latest CD remasterings are better? Well, not necessarily.

The other ‘inconvenience’ of these reissues is the variation in packaging formats – the BD-A only releases, except for the Solti Ring (review), come in a standard Blu-ray case which is significantly taller than a CD jewel case, and the combined BD-A/CD sets come in packages of differing dimensions, the Maazel/Sibelius symphonies box (review), for example, slipping comfortably into the space left by the old one, while the new Kertész/Dvorák set is a good inch deeper than its 1996 predecessor. On the positive side, the new set does include all the Dvorák recordings Kertész made with the LSO - an extra three CDs’ worth, in effect. A sturdy outer slip-case contains two hardcover booklets, one holding the CDs in sleeves bearing the original Brueghel LP cover artwork, and the other with track details, liner notes, and the BD-A.

Given that these Decca reissues are of ‘legendary’ performances, suffice it to say they’ve been reviewed to death over the decades, and I suspect the primary interest of most readers is ‘what do they sound like now?’. Just a few observations, then, on this Kertész/Dvorák set. Kingsway Hall was the venue for all the recordings, and the majority have Ray Minshull as producer and Kenneth Wilkinson as engineer. On the symphonies, each of the performances has been in the top handful of choices since their initial appearance over the period 1963-67. My personal favourite has always been the Sixth, which finds Kertész, the LSO and the Decca team at a collective and happy high. The Eighth, the first to be put down, is a bold and perhaps overly assertive reading, Kertész whipping up excitement in the finale through some rather extreme tempi – indeed I remember this movement being played regularly on the radio as a ‘bleeding chunk’ in light music programmes. Comparison, say, with Bruno Walter’s Eighth on Sony, recorded two years earlier, shows that greater composure and a steadier pulse sacrifice nothing in excitement, while maintaining structural integrity. On the New World, some will say Kertész’s 1961 Decca recording with the Vienna Philharmonic is even finer, but that may be splitting hairs. It certainly doesn’t provide sufficient reason not to invest in the full LSO cycle.

The rest of the collection brings together all the other Dvorák recordings Kertész made with the LSO, comprising orchestral works such as the overtures and symphonic poems, and the Symphonic Variations, together with the choral/orchestral Requiem and the Wind Serenade. Most outstanding perhaps are the Variations and the Scherzo capriccioso, which fully bring out the composer’s exuberance and charm, as well as, in the former, the Brahmsian elements. The Requiem receives a wholehearted and vital response from Kertész, his singers and orchestra, if not quite as inspired as Karel Ančerl’s on DG. The overtures and symphonic poems are a mixed bag as compositions, representing Dvorák at his most dashing, witness Carnival, to his almost dutiful side, as in the three symphonic poems after K. J. Erben. Kertész and the LSO, however, do full justice to all. Perhaps my only real disappointment is with the performance of the Wind Serenade, on balance my favourite Dvorák work. I find Kertész at times a little rushed, not sufficiently allowing for the pomposity and pointing of detail which make this work such a delectable treat. For that, go to the Netherlands Wind Ensemble under Edo de Waart on Philips.

The full LP set of Kertész’s Dvorák symphonies first appeared in my student days. At the time, I remember reading a library copy of Hi Fi News & Record Review in which the reviewer (I can’t recall who) described the Decca sound as the ‘zinc-tank acoustic’. Having by then collected a number of the individual LPs, I rushed home to listen a little more closely. While I couldn’t quite hear the ‘tank’, I was certainly aware of a metallic edge, leading me to sample my other Decca orchestral LPs.  There was, it appeared, the same edge to all of them – mostly as this uningratiating string tone. Up to that point, like most collectors, I’d upheld Decca sound as the ultimate for its clarity, presence and sheer oomph. If I had been aware of this stridency, I was sublimating it to what was the really good stuff.

When Decca then started issuing its analogue and digital recordings on CD in the early 1980s, the ‘edge’ persisted, emphasised if anything by the fidelity of the new medium. In the meantime, I’d got to know some ex-Decca personnel and learnt about some of their ways which, fortified by additional research, led me to find what is really a very simple answer. And it’s this. After the pioneering work of Arthur Haddy, Kenneth Wilkinson and others in the early 1950s, Decca developed an orchestral recording setup for stereo that was used almost without change until the 1990s. It consisted of the 'Decca Tree' with three microphones in a triangular left-centre-right layout, positioned just behind and above the conductor’s head, and two additional microphones, termed outriggers, on either side in front of the orchestra. Other spot microphones were used as necessary, but these main five, for which Decca chose the Neumann M50, defined ‘the sound’. The M50 was originally developed in the late days of mono as a universal microphone that could be used for pickup of a whole orchestra, by positioning it above and in front of the orchestra, and pointing it towards the back. It was omnidirectional at low to mid frequencies, and increasingly directional and sensitive at high frequencies, that is, it had a treble emphasis. By aiming it at the rear sections of the orchestra, the natural absorption of high frequencies in air meant that a good tonal and volume balance could be achieved for the whole orchestra. Decca, however, didn’t use the M50 quite like this. They had five of them quite close to, and aimed at, the nearest sections of the orchestra. Such intimacy with the M50 had very predictable effects: from its all-round bass/mid pickup – fullness and impact, with a rich ambience; and from its rising, directional treble response - hyper-realism with exaggerated (edgy) upper harmonics. Decca ffss writ large - sound familiar?

So is there anything of that original, damning description left in these latest Decca remasterings? Well, the bright traces of zinc are still there, but so are all the other glories of the ‘Decca Sound’. By now it doesn’t really seem to matter, because it’s like re-uniting with an old, munificent, slightly flashy friend, who has only the best of intentions.

The new set consists of nine CDs and the BD-A disc. There are ‘side-breaks’ on the CDs for the Second Symphony and the Requiem, the former also being the case with the 1996 set. The BD-A contains all the works with no interruptions and, given presumably that only stereo masters exist, it’s in 2-channel format. If you expect me now to comment on any perceived differences between the CDs and the BD-A, I’ll have to disappoint you. Assuming that identical sources were used for both formats, there’s a sufficient body of research, most notably in recent years from the Audio Engineering Society, which says no matter what I might like to imagine, any well-designed test will show that I really can’t tell the difference. In this case, the only source of variation might be quantisation errors in conversion from the original 96kHz sampling rate to the CD’s 44.1kHz, but that would take some truly close listening! What concerns me more is that the best sources have been used, and transferred with minimal intervention. As someone who prefers it warts-and-all, I’m very sceptical of this modern audio alchemy which purports to reverse the second law of thermodynamics. The Decca blurb says it’s a 2016 remastering from original analogue tapes, no mention of Cedar or the likes, so I’ll take it as given. But excuse me for being cynical – haven’t I seen that same kind of statement many times before?

I also wouldn’t attempt to advise you on the new CD transfers compared with the 1996 set because, firstly, the latter have always sounded very good and, secondly, the paucity of information given with that set provides little basis for comparison with the new one - for example, whether the same masters were used. As already suggested, self-delusion is an omnipresent peril in the world of audio, and provides much fertile ground for psycho-acoustic research, especially when we’re conditioned to believe ‘newer is better’. Indeed, a surprising discovery I made during the course of this review is how fresh the above-mentioned Bruno Walter Dvorák Eighth still sounds, a 1983 CD transfer. Given the supposed advances in audio over the past 30-odd years, what has really improved? These Walter reissues allegedly were taken from the original masters, and it shows – CD technology essentially hasn’t changed since its inception, and for all intents and purposes gives as good as it gets. That can also be translated as ‘garbage-in, garbage-out’, and on the evidence of these excellent early Walter transfers, the CD medium has been fed a lot of sonic garbage in the intervening years, masquerading as something ‘better’.

What to make of it all, then? If you already have these Kertész/Dvorák recordings as previous CD releases and don’t have a Blu-ray player, you might be advised to save your money, unless of course you want to minimise shelf space, which the new set will do quite nicely, albeit sticking out a bit. If, like me, you are mostly interested in the BD-A disc on the grounds that, assuming original sources, it will, technically at least, be as close as you’ll ever get to having the mastertapes of these marvellous recordings, then by all means take the plunge. But if, like me, you find no new revelations about what is by now a much known quantity, you have been warned! For those, however, who don’t already know these Kertész performances, or perhaps have only a passing familiarity, I couldn’t recommend this new set more highly.

Des Hutchinson



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