Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Othello, Op. 93 (1891-1892) [14:38]
Symphony No. 6 in D major, Op. 60 (1880) [43:54]
Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70 (1884-1885) [39:49]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Yannick Nézet-Séguin
rec. live, Royal Festival Hall, London, 2008 (No. 7), 2016 (Othello, No. 6)
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from eClassical
Pdf booklet included

After some disappointing Berlioz and Richard Strauss from Rotterdam Yannick Nézet-Séguin made good with a splendid recording of Saint-Saëns’s Third Symphony and Poulenc’s Organ Concerto (review). That was also with the LPO, of which he was Principal Guest Conductor from 2007 to 2014. Then he and Rafael Kubelík’s old band, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, collaborated on a refreshing, highly competitive account of Mahler’s First Symphony (review). Indeed, the latter was one of my Recordings of the Year for 2016.

Kubelík’s Dvořák, recorded with the BRSO in the 1960s and 1970s, is famed for its extraordinary vigour and insight, though listeners may be pleased to see that István Kertész’s equally celebrated Decca cycle of symphonies and overtures/tone poems has been remastered and reissued on CD and BD-A (review). These two traversals cast a very long shadow. Take Mariss Jansons’ Amsterdam and Munich Dvořák Eights, for instance (review); they’re decent enough, but like so many of their ilk they just don’t stack up against the stalwarts. Jakob Hrůša’s album of overtures (review) is similarly outclassed by Kubelík’s indispensable Trio box from DG.

Othello, the third piece in Dvořák’s planned triptych entitled Nature, Life and Love – the other two were In Nature’s Realm and Carnival – gets a terrific outing here. The brass playing is full and beautifully blended, the strings are smooth and the work’s echoes and antiphonies come across very well indeed. Nézet-Séguin may focus on tonal beauty and transparency, but that’s not pursued at the expense of dramatic thrust; indeed, the sheer weight and attack of the LPO in the tuttis is both thrilling and refined. I can’t recall a lovelier, more poetic account of Othello than this. The sound is appealing and the applause is appreciative.

Nézet-Séguin impressed the LPO with a memorable performance of the Sixth Symphony in 2007, a piece they revisited in 2016. Dvořák wrote it for the conductor Hans Richter and the Vienna Philharmonic, but after much prevarication on Richter’s part the symphony was finally premiered by the Czech Philharmonic under Adolf Čech. It’s a quietly radiant work, full of incidental delights and dancing tunes. In the Allegro non tanto Nézet-Séguin strikes a good balance between the movement’s more imposing passages and its lilting, lightly sprung ones. Clarity is the keyword here, and that gives the performance a glorious, ‘hear through’ aspect.

I can’t recall a reading of this symphony that sounds so Mendelssohnian, and I feel that’s all to the good. In particular, I was bowled over by the aristocracy of the LPO’s playing; they really are at the top of their game, as recent concerts/recordings with their Principal Conductor Vladimir Jurowski so amply demonstrate. There’s a shot-silk loveliness to the Adagio for instance – it’s so naturally paced and phrased – and with it comes that elusive ‘you-are-there’ sensation. The well-balanced recording, with good depth and spread, certainly helps in this regard; thankfully, there’s none of the ‘souped up’ engineering that’s undeniably exciting but disrupts the narrative.

This is Czech music, so the dance is all important. Nézet-Séguin brings plenty of brio and bounce to the Furiant – what characterful woodwind playing and elegant pizzicati – and how instinctively this conductor shapes and scales the music. And while you will hear more propulsive accounts of the spirited Finale elsewhere, you won’t find one as deftly controlled or as affectionately done as this. I suppose what I really admire about these performances – and the recordings – is just how clean and unfussy they are. If only more recorded concerts worked this well. There’s applause, but like the music-making it’s warm and well mannered.

The last Dvořák Seventh to come my way was Claus Peter Flor’s with the Malaysian Phil, which also contains top-notch readings of Othello and The Wild Dove (review). These were recorded before the acrimonious player/management dispute that derailed the orchestra and put paid to their lucrative recording contract with BIS. Among that team’s stand-out albums is a splendid performance of Smetana’s Má vlast (review) that can rub shoulders with the best, the various Kubelíks included. As for their Seventh, it’s weighty and well recorded, and Flor underlines the work’s equivocal moods at every turn. It’s not lugubrious though, and the playing is never less than compelling.

Nézet-Séguin’s Seventh, recorded in 2008, is much less appealing than his magnificent Sixth. Even at this early stage of his tenure with the LPO the conductor seems to be aiming for transparency and a certain lightness of tread. The Allegro maestoso comes off reasonably well, and the players rise to the big moments with commendable style and alacrity. Again, it’s a very ‘straight’ performance, but without the obvious rapport that informs the other recordings here; indeed, it may even seem a little cautious at times, notably in the Poco adagio.

Don’t get me wrong, Nézet-Séguin’s is a solid response to the Seventh; it’s just unfortunate that it should appear in such illustrious company. And while I can’t fault the playing, the get-up-and-go that infuses their Sixth just isn’t there in this Seventh, especially in stretches of the Scherzo and Finale. That said, the audience loved it. The recording is good, even though it sounds a tad opaque compared with the later ones in the set. And, as so often with these LPO releases, the liner-notes – by Stephen Johnson and Andrew Mellor – are lucid and well laid out. A treat for older eyes.

A sensible yoking together of concerts recorded eight years apart; they demonstrate just how special Nézet-Séguin’s relationship with the LPO has become.

Dan Morgan

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