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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Symphonic Variations, Op. 78, B70 (1877) [22:32]
Serenade for Strings in E, Op. 22 (1875) [27:01]
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis
rec 1968, Wembley Town Hall, London
ELOQUENCE 482 9380 [49:42]

Eloquence have done it again; here is a straight re-release of a 1968 Philips album (SAL 3706) presenting two well-loved works by Dvořák. The Variations has been out before, notably on a “Duo” with the last three Symphonies from Davis and the Royal Concertgebouw. The Serenade for Strings here has its first international reissue on CD. I have the later version from the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, coupled with Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade”. Both this and the Variations are in a convenient super-budget “Symphonies” box (28 CDs) on Decca. The original LP cover of the March 1968 recording is at the back of the booklet; the present cover is, I presume a period Czech drawing. There are also good descriptive notes on the two works by Conrad Wilson.

Things had not been that smooth between Colin Davis and the LSO in the early part of the sixties. That said, it had produced some magnificent Mozart, that resonated with my 10-year old self and did so again, when I reviewed a superb double CD, also on Eloquence. On the death of Pierre Monteux, aged 89, only three years through his insisted-upon 25 year contract, the LSO chose well-known Dvořákian István Kertész. In Kertész they had a very fine conductor but not in Davis’s class. Davis later confessed that his behaviour at times had been self-centred and very driven, it also had a bearing on the breakdown of his first marriage. By 1968 he was developing into an altogether more mature, kinder and admirable person.

Dvořák’s “Symphonic Variations” receive surprisingly few recordings, far fewer than his friend Brahms’ “Haydn Variations”. Reading the February 1969 “Gramophone” summarised “Colin Davis' utterly charming performance [of the Variations] everything is extremely well judged”. I own several revered recordings of this work: Beecham on Sony (review) and the LPO under Zdenĕk Mácal, coupled with the “New World” Symphony on CFP (review). The LPO tackled the work again with renowned conductor of Czech music, Charles Mackerras (review), currently available incredibly cheaply. I have not heard those by Dvořák specialists Rafael Kubelik or István Kertész. I concur with fellow reviewer Gwyn Parry-Jones that it’s a mystery why these splendid Variations aren’t much more popular and well-known than they are. He concludes that it must be something to do with the title, which is rather bald and ‘academic’ sounding. They are based on an adaptation of “I am the fiddler” the third of seven short pieces for male choir. They start off somewhat heavy with foreboding before developing the theme with its delightful elements of the Lydian mode, so common in Czech folk music. There are similarities with the finale of the Seventh Symphony which some regard as Dvořák’s finest; for me the Eighth is hors concours. The theme of these “Symphonic Variations” is quite short, so that the individual variations themselves seem to follow on in an effortless stream of invention, culminating in a splendid fugue. Davis and the LPO produce a completely idiomatic performance with fine playing throughout and splendid brass in the final variations which inevitably remind me of Brahms’ “Haydn Variations” of 1873; the older composer greatly admired Dvorak’s works especially this and the Cello Concerto. Dvořák, not a very good self-critic, laid the work aside until a performance in Prague during March 1887. It was a huge success and Hans Richter, the dedicatee of Elgar’s First Symphony, said “I gladly avail [myself of] this opportunity of coming in touch with a composer by the grace of God. I had been thinking that before my London scheme was quite fixed, I would ask if [Dvořák] had anything for me. Now your “Symphonic Variations” have come as brilliant addition to my programme”. This fine performance and recording has been re-mastered by Chris Berneur who has captured the sound of Wembley Town Hall; the very same place where Mravinsky’s epic last three Tchaikovsky numbered symphonies were recorded in 1960. I can’t see that Colin Davis ever re-recorded these Variations; perhaps he felt that he had produced his definitive statement, a judgement that I’d go along with.

The 1968 performance of “Serenade for Strings in E” exudes joyful warmth from those poignant opening bars. I first heard it, like many pieces in the 1960s, as the theme for a BBC radio adaptation of Thackeray’s “The Ordeal of Richard Feverel”. It is a work that I like a lot but play rarely. I have the earlier (1969) typically committed recording by Rafael Kubelik and the ECO (DG). Orfeo have released a live recording from 1977 (review) who states that “although the Serenade is no stranger to the concert hall, it is somewhat of a cinderella piece. At this time the family were awaiting the birth of their second child, and following some recent successes the future looked hopeful. Dvořák was obviously in good spirits as the work was completed in only eleven days and this in a year which produced three major chamber works, and the Fifth Symphony, as well as some songs and the opera Vanda”. This release, which also included the “New World Symphony” has been be recommended for its good, sound and unidiosyncratic performances. A much admired Argo analogue recording from 1970 came from the ASMF under Marriner, in a DG Panorama compilation (review); I have it in a lovely 28 CD Argo set and would agree that its typical “of the clean, unfettered approach which characterised recordings from this combination. The Scherzo is fresh, the Menuetto elegant. Only when one encounters the last movement does some strain become apparent from the high strings”. I also have Karajan who made a superb recording of the Eighth Symphony for Decca, recently refurbished in a splendid box of VPO recordings that I’ve received and for which I hope to do an overview. I used to enjoy the single, early digital disc of the Tchaikovsky Serenade which is now in the “Karajan 80s” box. It’s fashionable to criticise late Karajan for being too plush, like a Rolls Royce. That’s a greatly unfair generalisation; think of that unique live Brahms Symphony No.1 (Testament). There are qualities in this recording that deserve a listen. I also would not be without the conductor-less Orpheus Chamber Orchestra on a great Serenade CD on DG. In the same pantheon I also rather surprisingly, rate Rudolf Kempe whose version is coupled with Ormandy’s “New World” on Sony. That disc is such great value (review). In splendid stereo with antiphonal orchestration beautifully captured, Davis and the LSO produce a performance that has me reaching for superlatives. The later BRSO is very proficient and I will certainly not abandon it but there is a youthful zest in this recording. It reminded me, not that it should have to, what a splendid work this is. Beecham’s spirited approach to this composer can be heard in ‘his’ Eighth Symphony (review) now re-mastered on BBC Legends Volume 2 (ICA) which should certainly be owned by all lovers of fine live recordings. Although Sir Thomas conducted a fine “Symphonic Variations”, I can’t find a “Serenade”. Davis provides a fine substitute. The way the original theme returns in the finale is magical and whatever difficulties may have existed previously the LSO and Davis seem totally at one.

When I saw this CD in the list of new releases, I suspected that it would be special. I’m delighted to confirm this and would suggest that it belongs on the shelves of all lovers of Dvořák, Davis and that special Philips analogue sound. Now, if we could have his earlier Beethoven, that would be grand.
David R Dunsmore

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