Antonin DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Legends Op. 59 B. 117 (1880-2) [39:44]
Notturno in B major, Op. 40 B. 47 (1876-1883) [6:19]
Miniatures, op. 75a B. 150 (1877-1887) [14: 19]
Prague Waltzes (1879) B. 99 [7:44]
Budapest Festival Orchestra/Ivan Fischer
rec. March and May 1999, Italian Institute, Budapest
PHILIPS 476 2179 [68:11]
Old hands will remember the Penguin Guides, originally to vinyl LPs, then progressively to cassettes and then CDs. The guides were revised every couple of years and the series ran from 1975 to 2011. They were compiled by a team, usually of the three writers Robert Layton, Edward Greenfield and Ivan March, and they covered mainly the core classical repertoire providing evaluations and recommendations. Although inevitably subjective, they were a useful guide to those, like myself, who were starting to collect recordings and needed something to orientate them amidst the flood of new recordings then coming out. Although their recommendations sometimes turned out to be duds, I remain grateful for the guidance they gave.
They would score recordings with one, two or three stars, and usually only listed those to whom they gave good marks. Then, beyond that, to some recordings they gave rosettes. The rosette was defined as ‘a quite arbitrary compliment by a member of the reviewing team to a recorded performance which he finds shows special illumination, magic, a spiritual quality, or even outstanding production values that place it in a very special class.’ The accolade was slightly compromised in that rosettes were occasionally removed in subsequent editions, and other scores were also sometimes changed. Still, many of the rosetted recordings have stood the test of time. Moreover, the recording companies were quick to seize the marketing opportunity offered, and rebadged their discs featuring the rosette award prominently and, in my view, somewhat garishly.
This disc is one of those. When it first came out, the Budapest Festival Orchestra and their conductor Ivan Fischer had only started to be widely known, with some excellent recordings of Bartók, which are still around thanks to Presto’s reissue programme. This disc is one of their earlier forays into different territory, that of the Czech composer Dvořák. Very sensibly, instead of moving into the already well occupied field of the symphonies, they took a group of his lighter works and gave them first-rate performances – hence the rosette.
The Legends are cousins of the first set of Slavonic Dances of a year or so earlier. Despite the title, no particular stories are linked to the pieces. They were originally written for piano duet, as were the Dances, and then orchestrated. They are, by and large, somewhat gentler than the Dances, though the first is very Brahmsian and the sixth and tenth are similarly dance-like. The others vary, the second, for example, having a pastoral opening and a more serious middle section. The fourth begins with martial calls to attention before relaxing. The fifth and eighth are gracious and the seventh playful and capricious. They all show Dvořák’s talent for melody and also for elegant construction, usually in ternary form.
The Notturno for string orchestra is a charming piece with a complicated history. It was originally written in 1870 as the slow movement of an early string quartet, B. 19, unpublished in Dvořák’s lifetime. He then included it in his string quintet Op. 49 B. 77 of 1875. Still dissatisfied, he removed it, revised it for string orchestra adding a double bass part, and presented it as an independent piece in 1883. It is therefore really an early work, and is strongly redolent of Wagner, whom Dvořák greatly admired at the time. Indeed, it can be heard as a companion to Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, being in much the same mood. In this form it is completely convincing – and one can hear how valuable it was to have that double bass line.
Finally, the Miniatures are almost a jeu d’esprit. They originated as a set of short pieces for two violins and viola for Dvořák to play with his friends, as a replacement for the Terzetto he had written for the same combination which had proved too difficult for one of the violinsts. He did not publish this set, but it turned up in 1938. Fischer here uses the strings of his orchestra for these four tiny pieces, the last of which is slightly more serious than the others.
Finally we have another early work, the set of five waltzes which Dvořák wrote to commission for a ball. They are vivid and effective without being particularly special.
These performances are distinguished by the brilliance and zest of the playing, the immaculate tuning and phrasing, and the flexibility with which Fischer and the orchestra approach these charming works. The recording is fine. There are other recordings, particularly of the Legends, but this is, I believe, the only one to make them the main work. Although I for one would have been perfectly happy with the original livery, this well deserves its rosette.
Previous review (original issue): John Phillips