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Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)
Complete Symphonies, Legends & Slavonic Dances
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/José Serebrier
rec. 2011-2014
WARNER CLASSICS 9029623881 [7 CDs: 515]

My touchstone recordings of Dvořák’s symphonies have long been the three Ks – Karajan, Kertész and Kubelik – and a particularly fine box set from that perennially under-valued conductor Otmar Suitner (review). I recently added to this list a fine double bill of the Third and Seventh from Myung-Whun Chung (review). This set, however, had passed me by, but was previously quite enthusiastically reviewed by two MWI colleagues (review ~ review) and has now been re-issued by Warner Classics with no need of remastering, as they were all relatively recently recorded over four years in the Poole Arts Centre and the sound quality – as is usually the case in this digital age – is superb.

Regarding the Slavonic Dances, I have never found a recording to touch Szell’s vintage account – not even Kubelik’s and the first thing I played on opening this box set was No 8, Op 48 – and sadly I immediately registered that it has nothing like the swing and snap of Szell’s version. I moved on to sample the openings of various favourite symphonies, to uniform disappointment – these are flat, dull recordings devoid of the spring and animation Dvořák demands. This places me in the invidious position of disagreeing with both my MusicWeb colleagues and received opinion in general – but I hastened to check my response against favourite recordings and must speak as I find. The orchestral playing is dutiful and the conducting uninspired; I call as my first witness Suitner’s recording of the Sixth, – and immediately, there in the opening is the charm, the lift, the dynamic nuance and delicacy of phrasing so patently missing in Serebrier’s stolid, unimaginative conducting.

I moved on to the Eighth and made comparison between Serebrier and Karajan’s 1985 digital version – and the differences are again marked; the Bournemouth SO have nothing like the warmth and weight of the VPO and Karajan finds so much more excitement and variety in the music. The trumpet call which forms the fanfare to the finale and the ensuing stately march plods under Serebrier and the doubling of the tempo just over two minutes in fails to ignite, whereas Karajan sets the pulse racing and the reprise of that tumultuous passage for the final minute whereas Serebrier’s slower pace – with an unnecessary momentary rallentando at 10:17 - is tame.

Turning to the Seventh, I make comparison with Szell’s 1960 recording with the Cleveland and once again, the vitality and virtuosity of the older, classic recording eclipse the newer one. There is a stolidity and a lack of fluidity to Serebrier’s phrasing which impedes the flow of the music and bores the listener. The skipping Scherzo is so much more affectionately and subtly phrased by Szell and part of that appeal lies as much in his dynamic shading as his rhythmic sculpting; on addition, the Cleveland, like the VPO has a much juicier sound.

I turned to the famous Ninth, this time using the classic Fricsay/BPO recording as a benchmark – although of course there are dozens of other, equally distinguished versions from which to choose. The warmth, power and articulation of the Fricsay recording are all stunning – and the sound outstanding, especially for its era. His use of fleeting rubato is masterly, and if harder sticks could have been used for the timpani, we must remember that this was 1959 and there is still plenty of heft there. I defy anyone to play this with Serebrier back-to-back and assert that there is any equivalence in majesty and impact. Playing Serebrier immediately after merely emphasised how mushy and lacking in precision, dynamic range and clarity this new recording is, despite its digital engineering. It is difficult to believe that a recording over fifty years older could be so superior - but there it is.

Having found all four of the later, greater symphonies and the Symphonic Dances here wanting, I suggest that it matters little what I think of the earlier symphonies or the other, lesser orchestral works; a box set on which these do not convince is of little value. I urge lovers of these most stirring and uplifting of works to look elsewhere, perhaps starting with some of the recommendations above I use as comparisons.

Ralph Moore

CD 1:
Symphony No 1 in C minor, Op 3 (Zlonické zvony; The Bells of Zlonice)
Slavonic Dances, Op 72 Nos 4 & 8
CD 2:
Symphony No 2 in B-flat, Op 4
Slavonic Dances, Op 46 Nos 3 & 6; Op 72 No 7
CD 3:
Symphony No 3 in E-flat, Op 10
Symphony No 6 in D, Op 60
CD 4:
Symphony No 4 in D minor, Op 13
Symphony No 5 in F, Op 76
CD 5:
Symphony No 7 in D minor, Op 70
Slavonic Dance, Op 46 No 8
In Nature’s Realm
Scherzo capriccioso, Op 66
CD 6:
Symphony No 8 in G, Op 88
Ten Legends, Op 59
CD 7:
Symphony No 9 in E minor, Op 95 (Z Nového světa; From the New World)
Czech Suite, Op 39
Slavonic Dances, Op 46 Nos 1 & 8; Op 72 No 2

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