Antonin Dvorak: Complete Symphonies, Legends, Slavonic Dances.
A year following the seminal recording of Antonin Dvorak's symphonies and concertos, performed by the Czech Philharmonic and conducted by Jin Belohlavek, and three soloists--Ohlsson, Weilerstein and Zimmermann (Decca Classics 2012-2013)--another survey of the maestro's symphonies has been released, this time recorded by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, one of the oldest permanently established orchestras in the UK, and its chief conductor, Jose Serebrier. The project is the sixth set of the complete Dvorak symphonies to have been implemented in Great Britain, with the previous five recordings having been made by Istvan Kertesz (Decca 1963-1971); Witold Rowicki (Philips 1965-1971), with the London Symphony Orchestra; Andrew Davis, conducting London's Philharmonia Orchestra (RCA Victors 1979-1983); Neeme Jarvi and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (Chandos 1985-1987); and Libor Pesek, with the Czech Philharmonic and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (Virgin Classics / Supraphon 1987-1996). In light of Serebrier's CD series, and given that at the present time there are ongoing German projects, currently being continued in Nuremberg (Coviello Classics, Marcus Bosch) and Saarbriicken (Hanssler Classics, Karl Mark Chichon), we could talk about witnessing a revival of interest in Dvorak's symphonies.
The idea of a set of recordings of Dvorak's symphonies, accompanied by a variety of other concert pieces, including a selection of the Slavonic Dances, some of them made in the studio and some at live concerts, actually came from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. It was welcomed by Warner Classics, which saw it as an opportunity of completing its catalogue with the set of Dvorak symphonies, as the label had previously only released Eliahu Inbal's and Nikolaus Harnoncourt's recordings of Symphonies Nos. 7-9. And the suggestion was also embraced by Jose Serebrier himself, a great fan of Dvorak's music, even though he had only previously recorded on CD the two final symphonies, the Legends and the Czech Suite. Serebrier approached the project with a keen interest and without prejudice, as did the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, which does not have the early Dvorak symphonies in its repertoire. This unspoilt, virginal spirit on the part of both the conductor and orchestra, combining spontaneous collective performance and the belief in the value of Dvorak's early symphonic works, most positively evinces itself in the first three symphonies. Following consultations with musicologists and composers, Serebrier daringly intervened with the harmonic structure of the first movement of Symphony No. 1 in C minor, "The Bells of Zion ice", B 9, convinced that back in 1865 Dvorak was not thinking polytonally. In Serebrier's opinion, the majority of conductors--if not omitting the passages entirely--have only blindly adhered to the evident mistakes committed by the copyists, and if Dvorak had not sent the score to the competition and had had the opportunity to listen to it, or at least see it, he would have corrected the "apparent error" himself. Compared to older recordings, Serebrier's account of Symphony No. 1 in C minor does not so much intrigue by its duration (56:17, with the first movement lasting a record 20:19 minutes) as by the sense of detail in the middle parts, particularly in the violas, and the ability to highlight the fortes of Dvorak's juvenile piece, such as, for instance, the suspension of the flow of music and the concentration on an interesting phrase. Highly striking is the expressively performed introduction to Symphony No. 2 in B flat major, B 12, making the listener feel like repeatedly indulging in its almost erotic vibrations. It would seem that Serebrier has thoroughly explored Dvorak's biography, turning the composition into a symphonic counterpart to the Cypresses, B 11, which were composed in parallel with it. Extremely attractive are the symphony's natural tempo proportions, which are peculiar to Serebrier's entire project--I have not observed any wanton treatment of tempo in any of his recordings. The second movement of Symphony No. 2 perfectly blends the funeral march with the nocturnal pastoral, although there are more pointed accounts of the scherzo and the finale (Andrew Davis, 1981). Similarly, in the case of Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 10, I would give a higher rating to the creations of Zdenek Kosler (1980) and Neeme Jarvi (1987), who savour the delicacies of the slow movement to the harmonic marrow.
Yet Serebrier had no difficulties with the architecture of Dvorak's symphonies and their individual movements, bearing witness to which is the account of Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 13, characterised by a transparent sound of the wind instruments and a slender tone of the strings, with a minimum vibrato. The focus on the fascinating details of the first movement is followed by a strict observance of the infinite cantilena of the cellos in the second movement. Notwithstanding his giving preference to lyrical passages and tender sound over brisk, brazen brass, Serebrier has definitely placed his bets on the composition's symphonic potential. This sonic transparency and even tone, however, have levied the toll of "de-charming" Symphony No. 5 in F major, Op. 76, with Serebrier's version falling far short of the recordings made by Rafael Kubelik (1972) and Jih Belohlavek (2012). Coming across as more forcible is his account of Symphony No. 6 in D major, Op. 60, both owing to the Brahms-like softness of sound of the middle parts, the enlivening agogics, as well as the finely gradated dynamics. Surprisingly, Serebrier was economical with the agogics in the finale, yet the magical nocturnal atmosphere of the second movement, the evolutional tempos and the accentuated viola passages make the recording impressive enough. The recordings of the three mature symphonies are definitely up to the standard of other projects of the complete Dvorak symphonies, yet the competition between the recordings of the individual pieces is merciless indeed. It would seem that the most run-of-the-mill is the recording of Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70, with many a forcible detail (the infinitely softened finale of the second movement) and a great sense for dramatic effect, which the earlier recordings often lack. The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra's current technical and artistic potential is perhaps best demonstrated in their performance of Symphony No, 8 in G major, Op. 88--the slower tempos, the agogic invention, the sense of detail, the transparent sound and the graduate dynamics turn the recording into an absorbing experience. Particularly impressive is the dialogical second movement with echoes, pauses and properly administered expressivity. The manner-free scherzo and the contrastively gradated finale are the recording's apex. Instead of monumentality, in the New World Symphony, Sererbier has opted for chamber transparency, with a very brisk Largo and tremulous expressivity in the opening bars of the first movement. The finale duly codifies Serebrier's Dvorak strength, "to make heard as much as possible".
The set of the seven CDs is embellished by a selection of eight pieces from the Slavonic Dances, Ops. 46 and 72, whose loveliness may well make the listener regret not having been afforded the opportunity to hear the entire series. But it is possible that their complete recording would not be so endearing, dazzling with the splendour of orchestral gems, often with old-time agogics. One of the CDs features the calmer, legato-performed Scherzo capriccioso, Op. 66, next to the consistently dialogically built programme overture In Nature's Realm, Op. 91, in a chamber sound and leisurely tempo, affording a sufficient scope to the instrumental details. Serebrier's affinity to Dvorak's music is also illustrated by the Czech Suite in D major, Op. 39, and the Legends, Op. 59, which many years ago he recorded with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (1989, ASV), yet, especially in the account of the Legends, he has surpassed not only himself but also the majority of other conductors, including Karel Sejna (1956), Rafael Kubelik (1976) and Ivan Fischer (1999), whose recordings I still deem to be engrossing in their own right.
At a very reasonable price, Serebrier's lavishly packaged 7-CD Dvorak project is a lifelong investment, a project of a high standard compared with the older recordings, containing truly compelling accounts of some of the featured works.