I had barely finished this Artia set when the first release or two of Istvan Kertész’s performances with the London Symphony, then on London LPs, hit the market. I can't really remember, at this late date, which was the first in the set except that it included a performance of the "Hussite Overture" that literally blew me away. In pretty short order, I soon had a second full set of Dvorak symphonies – the Kertész set – in splendidly up-to-date stereo sound and in performances that sounded, if anything, even more idiomatic than those Artia performances. And, as noted, a large part of the "freshness" to these Kertész performances may well be due to his relaxed approach to what had been for him new repertoire.
I don't know that there's ever been a more melodic composer than Dvorak. Some might opt for Tchaikovsky, but I would differ with them. Even Dvorak's early symphonies – long unknown to concert-goers and record-collectors – have the gift of spontaneous melody, if not the perfection of craft that his later works in the genre did. And his overtures and orchestral scherzi matched the symphonies in melodiousness: the "In Nature's Realm" Overture is downright irresistable in this respect.
This boxed set of the works, remastered for CD, is a splendid bargain. The remastered sound need take second place to any other integral set of the Dvorak symphonies (save one, which I mention briefly at the end). And of course the full magic of Kertész’s performances is there for all to enjoy without concern for "settling for second best" in any respect.
But I have a few gripes about how Decca has gone about this CD release. The set of symphonies and overtures comes in two 4-CD jewel boxes inside a slipcase. But there are only 6 CDs, the penny-pinching for which leads to awkward sidebreaks for a few of the symphonies. And the "Hussite Overture" – one of the very best in the set, and one of the very best performances of the work anywhere – is nowhere to be found.
How much better it would have been had Decca seen fit to include those other 2 CDs, with the "Hussite Overture" and with the very real expectation that the regrettable sidebreaks would not have occurred! This is reason enough for me to give this release only 4 stars. And it is a shame because it needn't have been that way!
There is every appearance that Ivan Fischer (interestingly, another Hungarian and not a Czech) is in the process of doing his own (and very new) traversal of these works, with the Budapest Festival Orchestra and on the Philips label. The little I've heard has me very excited. But Fischer does not "put Kertész in the shade." And the price is considerably higher.
Aside from the aforementioned nits about saving a disc or two and its side effects, I doubt very much that you'd be disappointed in this bargain boxed set.
Everybody knows the "New World", but the familiarity diminishes as one travels backwards through Dvorak's symphonic oeuvre. It is fair to say that the first couple of CDs in this set will rarely leave the sleeve. However, from Number 5 onwards you will play them to death.
The Kertesz "New World" is the one by which others are measured. He is content to allow the music to flow by itself, and it is all the better for it. No over-egging the orchestral pudding here. However, the highlight is Symphony 8. This is a cracking work which deserves much more frequent programming in concert halls. It receives a magisterial performance at the hands of Kertesz. Particularly delightful is the light and tripping way he has with the coda to the third movement, which everybody else seems to plod. Symphony 7 was a re-write of Brahms 3, much as Schubert 9 was a re-write of Beethoven 7. Kertesz was good at Brahms too, he had a reputable set of four out from Decca at the time. He is the finest possible advocate of this lyrical Symphony. Numbers 5 and 6 are not consistently fine all through, but each has the odd superb mevement making them well worth listening to occasionally, especially when played as well as this.
We lost Kertesz tragically young. He would without doubt have gone on to greater things.
A final word about the sound quality. This dates from the era when Decca bankrupted the company in the pursuit of technically perfect classical recordings, most of which never sold enough copies to repay the cost of production. It was just about as good as analogue sound ever got. As an example, listen to the second movement of the "New World", pay attention to the orchestral background and notice the little motif which passes from instrument to instrument and follow it around in space until it ends at centre-rear on the tympani.
Dvorak was one of the great Classical tunesmiths. This music overflows with wonderful tunes. At the hands of Kertesz and his LSO players it receives outstanding treatment. The Decca engineers captured it perfectly. The CD transfers are first class. Who could ask for anything more?
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