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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841–1904)
The Complete Symphonies - Volume 2
Symphony No.5 in F major Op.76 (1875) [40:12]
In Nature's Realm Op.91 (1891) [14:52]
Scherzo Capriccioso Op.66 (1883) [12:02]
Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern/Karel Mark Chichon
rec. Congresshalle Saarbrücken Germany, March/April 2014
SWR MUSIC CD93.344 [67:23]

Volume 3
Symphony No.3 in E flat major Op.10 (1873) [34:41]
Symphony No.4 in D minor Op.13 (1874) [39:34]
Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern/Karel Mark Chichon
rec. Congresshalle Saarbrücken Germany, March/June 2015
SWR MUSIC SWR19009CD [74:23]

Volume 1 of this new cycle of Dvořák's symphonies started most auspiciously with Symphony No.1 (review). I am pleased to say that Volumes 2 & 3 match if not exceed the expectations generated by that initial disc and it would seem this is building into a most impressive set.

As I mentioned in my original review, conductor Karel Mark Chichon and his Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern, are entering a crowded field with many fine versions of individual symphonies and complete cycles available for the discerning collector. These range over the decades too with highly regarded cycles from Rowicki and Kertész back in the 60's and 70's through to Bělohlávek recently. As I write it seems that another new cycle has been initiated – the first in SA-CD sound[?] from Marcus Bosch and the Staatsphilharmonie Nürnberg. Since reviewing Vol.1 I have now heard the cycles from Bělohlávek and another which is much less well known but fervently supported from Ivan Anguelov and the Slovak Radio SO on Oehms. With so many recordings of such quality, I would find it simply impossible, if not faintly absurd, to say that one could possibly be 'better' than all the rest.

But if not better than the rest, then Chichon is right up there and deserves consideration alongside the best. I was struck again across both these new discs that the interpretation, playing and engineering share similar virtues all of which play to the strengths of Dvořák's wonderful music. Chichon conducts with a real feeling for the music – an unfussy empathy that allows the music to unfold most affectingly. The playing of the excellent Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern is equally skilled but again without making big interventionist points. All of which has been caught by the engineers of German Radio in subtly sophisticated sound – pretty much ideally warm and detailed without obvious spotlighting or manipulation. The sound Decca have provided for Bělohlávek's cycle is good but with more of the resonance of the hall, making for a 'tubbier' lower end to the orchestra which makes for powerful and imposing climaxes but skew the lighter more elegant passages. Bělohlávek can call upon the wonderful Czech PO who play wonderfully but with little of the instantly identifiable sound that marked Supraphon recordings of earlier decades.

Volume 2 of Chichon's cycle has Symphony No.5 as the main work. This is surely the most bucolic of the Dvořák symphonies with the opening movement in particular having a wonderful sense of the open air and benevolent warmth. If Dvořák had written a Pastoral Symphony, this would be it. Chichon has the measure of this to perfection as do his clarinet section who play the opening fanfare figuration with perfect playfulness. No one will tonally ever quite match the authenticity of say the Czech PO of the 1970's and before with those woody clarinets and warm horns and cutting brass but this is a beautiful modern equivalent. I have written before that I consider Dvořák to be a masterly orchestrator. Not in an overtly virtuosic Straussian way, but instead with subtle and effective distribution of melodic material as well as an astute ear for instrumental/timbral combinations. A good example of this – and Dvořák's remarkable melodic gift – can be heard in this Symphony's 2nd movement, a gloriously singing Andante con moto, where from the very first notes the cellos are given a quite beautiful song-without-words. Again, Chichon is excellent at not over-phrasing this essentially affectingly simple melody and the engineering reveals subtle inner balances between primary and secondary material – the clarity of execution and recording is ideal. The cellos are again entrusted with the lead material of the rectitative-like link into the third movement Allegro Scherzando. Fascinating to hear how Dvořák's folk-like treatment of these dance-influenced movements is evolving. It is not yet the full-blown Bohemian dance of the later symphonies but the National influence is unmistakeable. Chichon's performance of this is quite superb. Bright eyed, buoyant and infectiously good-humoured. Next to him, Bělohlávek – a full 1:20 slower – is not nearly bubbly (Bělohlávek also recorded this symphony with the BBC SO previously which is another performance I like and there he is around 1:00 slower than Chichon).

What I particularly like about Chichon's conception is the way the 4 movements of the symphony pair off: 1 & 2 emphasising the song-like and lyrical and 3 & 4 wonderfully energised and powerful. Again, I must stress that the playing and engineering symbiotically work together to support this clear-headed vision creating a wholly satisfying version right through to the exhilarating conclusion with the active inner brass writing registering in a way that Bělohlávek's more resonant Decca recording does not permit. The disc is completed by a pair of old favourites. The first is the Scherzo Capriccioso, which is given another sparkling and virtuosic performance. Here Bělohlávek and the BBC are a full two minutes slower which is a very significant amount. I must admit I was surprised to realise it was quite such marked difference. In no way does Chichon feel at all breathless or rushed – far from it. Listen to the delicious way he relaxes into another glorious Dvořákian 2nd subject complete with judicious little portamenti or the meltingly beautiful cor anglais led melody later in the work. This is an excellent close to the disc. Sandwiched between the Symphony and the Scherzo is the first of Dvořák's triptych of Life, Love & Death Overtures: In Nature's Realm Op.91. This is a genuinely mature Dvořák and a wonderful work too often overshadowed by its companion work Carnival Overture. Again, another superbly sympathetic performance from all involved. As before, it would be impossible and quite wrong to place this above other much-loved versions. For me, Ancerl's recordings are as near definitive as they could be. To place Chichon alongside Ancerl is about as high a compliment as I can pay.

Volume 3 generously couples two more early Symphonies – nos. 3 & 4. In both works Dvořák is wrestling with questions of symphonic form and musical development. As I wrote about Symphony No.1, whilst some critics may be dismissive of these earlier works in direct comparison to the later masterpieces I still marvel at the sheer quality of extended passages. Symphony No.3 holds a place as an important work in the composer's development. In 1873 Dvořák was still earning his main living playing viola for the National Theatre under Smetana. The 1874 premiere of the Symphony alongside the earlier Heirs of the White Mountain both at home and importantly abroad made critics and audiences realise that a new and significant compositional voice had arrived. One biographer hears "enthusiastic feelings for the fatherland" in this symphony. Certainly, right down to the key of E flat, there is a consciously epic and heroic feeling to the work which at this stage in his development Dvořák could not always bring off. Just occasionally gestures feel a bit forced and ring a bit hollow. At the risk of repeating myself, these performances repeat exactly the same virtues of the two earlier volumes and again Chichon's preferred approach of simplicity and directness allied to a very natural feel for phrase and form emphasises the qualities of the work. Listen to the symphony’s very opening bars to hear the unforced flow that is achieved and again the excellent balance across the whole orchestra. Dvořák is already playing with folk-like cross rhythms – switching from 6/8 to 3/4 and back – and the orchestra point these to exactly the right degree, sharp and clear without in any impeding the forward momentum.

Uniquely, Dvořák writes this work in three movements with no specific scherzo. Instead the central movement is an Adagio molto, tempo di marcia where the march passage has distinct echoes of ceremonial grandeur. Shades of Ma Vlast and Tannhauser, the latter especially in the arpeggiating string accompaniments. Again, the technical aspect of this new recording allows the carefully layered details of the playing to shine through, as it does in the closing Allegro Vivace finale. Chichon again favours a bright and bustling tempo which I think is a wise move. This remains one of my least favourite Dvořák movements, but Chichon's choices again show it in the best possible light. He is consistently more energised than Bělohlávek, who is very consistent in emphasising the lyrical song-like qualities of these symphonies. That is a perfectly legitimate and effective choice, but I personally find Chichon's energy and dynamism – not that he is not willing to relax into the 2nd subjects! – even more convincing.

With the Symphony No.4 Dvořák returns to the 'standard' four movement symphonic form and also writes a symphony in D minor – the key to which he was to return for his wonderful 7th Symphony. The opening movement has a turbulent dramatic character that feels as if it might be the prelude to some theatrical work. This is not quite as far-fetched as it might seem. The opus number of 13 sits right next to his early opera The King and the Charcoal Burner and, as mentioned previously, Dvořák's early career was playing in the orchestra of the National Theatre. There is a brooding quality to the music well caught here. Chichon takes the exposition repeat, I'm pleased to say, and he is very good at pointing the cross-rhythms that become an ever more common fingerprint in Dvořák's scores. The virtues of this performance are quite literally the same as the other two works. If, like me, you find yourself wholly convinced by this approach, these performances will prove to be a catalogue of delights. The opening of the second movement Andante sostenuto e molto cantbile is beautifully scored for the three trombones doubled on clarinets and bassoons soon joined by the horns. There are pre-echoes here of the famous slow movement in the New World Symphony. Again, Chichon scores by not over-phrasing or burdening the music with extra emotional weight. The tempo marking is a reasonably flowing crochet = 63-69, so the melodies must be able to sing rather than become mired in emotion. Dvořák's handling of divisi strings with gently pulsating woodwind and accompanying harp figurations is a good example of his early skill and confidence in handling an orchestra. It may not be overtly ‘brilliant', but it creates a warm and lush string based texture that is quite beautiful.

The Allegro feroce scherzo is not yet in the folk-dance style that Dvořák was to perfect. Instead the main melody, to my ear at least, seems to nod towards the operatic stage. You can imagine this being written as a chorus of Norse warriors, right down to the manically bardic harp writing. It makes for a wholly enjoyable movement without the individual stamp of greatness that Dvořák was to reach in the next symphony and beyond. The closing Allegro con brio appears more plainly on the printed page. Dvořák relies less on thick accompanying figurations and more on a simple direct melody accompanied in a similarly un-complex manner. No surprise that Chichon is a full half minute quicker than Bělohlávek. Again, I think this is to the music's benefit, the 'con brio' character shining through more with Chichon.

Accompanying both these discs are good liner notes in German and English only. As I mentioned at the opening of this review, there is such a wide choice of impressive recordings of these works and to place any above all else is impossible. There is the cost implication too. The Bělohlávek set including the 3 concerti can be found online for less than Ł20.00. Each of these new discs are full-price, so the full set will be considerably more expensive. I chose this time to compare the performances only with Bělohlávek simply because the contrast is quite marked and this is one of the newest cycles. Perhaps I should mention the Serebrier cycle in Bournemouth, which is very good and richly recorded another relatively recent contender. My own allegiances still turn to earlier Czech performances. However, of all the more recent recordings I have heard, it strikes me that Chichon is amongst the very best at allowing the fresh and joyful inspiration of Dvořák's early symphonies to shine through. The excellent playing of his Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern, allied to the sophisticated and satisfying engineering of these discs, makes for a thoroughly enjoyable experience. A top rated pair of discs – further volumes in this series are eagerly awaited.

Nick Barnard



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