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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op 70 (1884-85) [39:57]
Symphony No. 8 in G major, Op 88 (1889) [39:05]
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis
rec. live, October 1999 (8), March 2001 (7); Barbican, London
ALTO ALC1406 [79:08]

The LSO Live label issued four recordings of Dvořák symphonies conducted by Sir Colin Davis during his time as Principal Conductor of the LSO. Unfortunately, none of the original releases were reviewed here. A 2004 performance of the Sixth was issued on LSO0059: I bought it and liked it. There was also a 1999 performance of the ‘New World’ which I finally caught up with last year when I reviewed a very handsome tribute to Sir Colin by LSO Live. Until now, these recordings of the Seventh and Eighth symphonies had eluded me so I’m delighted that Alto has licenced them. Perhaps the reason I didn’t acquire these performances when LSO Live first issued them was because I already had a Philips disc which had the same two symphonies in performances conducted by Sir Colin. In that case, the recordings featured the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Those excellent versions were set down in 1975 (Symphony 7) and 1978 and are still available, I believe.

I found it interesting to compare and contrast Davis’s LSO and Amsterdam recordings. The latter were made, I think, under studio conditions in the Concertgebouw and you won’t be surprised to learn that the orchestra is a little more distanced from the microphones than the LSO and there’s more space round the Philips sound. Also, as a broad generalisation, Davis’s earlier recordings were a bit tauter. That’s especially true of the first two movements of the Seventh and explains why his 1975 performance came in at 36:15. The Eighth also was a little quicker overall in Amsterdam; the playing time was 37:02.

In the 2001 performance of the Seventh, Davis’s opening is strong, dark and dramatic; the lower strings of the LSO provide a very firm foundation. By contrast, the second subject is nicely relaxed, just as it should be. I think the Amsterdam performance overall has a slightly lighter touch than the LSO Live version, though the different qualities of the recorded sound on the respective versions may account for that. I love the sound of the RCO’s woodwind section at the start of the slow movement, though their LSO peers are also excellent. In both performances Davis catches the various moods of the music very well, not least the more passionate episodes. The LSO performance as a whole seems to me to be a little darker and broader than the Amsterdam version. In the London version I appreciated the well-sprung rhythms in the Scherzo, where the energy levels seem just right. Equally attractive is the engaging performance of the more relaxed trio. The finale is dramatic and taut in both versions and Davis carries the listener along with no little excitement. The only snag, so far as I’m concerned, is the huge slowing down that he makes right at the end (9:09 in the LSO performance). He does exactly the same thing in the Amsterdam performance and I think the effect is seriously overdone. Other conductors make their point – and Dvořák’s – in these last pages without resorting to excess. To me, Sir Charles Mackerras shows how it should be done (review). However, that is merely a minor drawback to what is otherwise a first-rate performance.

I like Davis’s LSO performance of the Eighth a lot – and I like his Amsterdam version just as much. In both performances the slightly solemn introduction is ideally shaped and then the following Allegro con brio is indeed ‘con brio’. In the second subject – and in the lead-up to it – Davis shows great empathy for Dvořák’s mode of expression. If I have a marginal preference for the Amsterdam account of this engaging movement it’s because the less up-front recording gives a more ‘open-air’ feel to the music. The LSO performance of the lovely Poco Adagio is very distinguished. Hereabouts we can savour a good deal of super and very subtle woodwind playing. Davis is sensitive in his handling of the music, which breathes easily in his hands. The charm of the Allegretto gracioso is readily apparent; the performance is a smiling one, while the trio lilts delightfully. To round things off, Davis and the LSO treat us to a splendid account of the variations that form the finale. After this spirited performance (but not after the Seventh) there’s applause.

Here we have fine performances of two masterly symphonies. If you have the Concertgebouw disc then I think you can rest easy. However, if you don’t have that disc then you’ll find a great deal to enjoy in Sir Colin’s second thoughts on these symphonies.

John Quinn

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