Great Dvorak is not in short supply. Kubelik, Kertesz, Rowiki (and to a lesser extent Jarvi and Pesek) have all given us fantastic cycles. But, with the partial exception of the Pesek set, none have come from a truly authentic or idiomatic source. Indeed, Kubelik's Berlin cycle was the last word in orchestral opulence and execution even if it lacked rustic charm while Kertesz's gutsy set featured somewhat colorless playing from the London Symphony. Here, however, we finally have Neumann's complete cycle with the incomparable Czech Philharmonic in one, budget-priced set, which now can stand as the reference edition of these works.
The importance of having the Czech Philharmonic playing this music cannot be overstated. Upon first listening, it is immediately apparent that this orchestral timbre add such depth of color, nuisance, and feeling to the music that other sets are put to shame. Take, for instance, Neumann's Carnival overture. The outer sections have all the typical color and flair that you would expect in this music, but has the central interlude ever sounded more poignant or beautifully shaped? If so, I certainly have not heard it. Or listen to the absolutely crushing climax of the Water Goblin, where Neumann's bright, steely trumpets send shivers down the spine. Nothing can compare to the beautiful, watery sound of Czech clarinets, which bathe the opening of the 5th symphony with unending character or the fabulous, rustic horns, which add an extra dose of horror to the eerie glow of the coda of the 7th's allegro. The strings make much of their parts in the dance movements, particularly the furiant in the sixth and the rhythmically complex scherzos in the 7th and 9th. From top to bottom, the sound is so unlike anything you are likely to hear from any other source which is all the more disturbing because this pallet is exactly what Dvorak had in mind.
Or course, great orchestras do not great cycles make. Neumann, as the man in charge, delivers performances that are, on balance, the best available. The opening of the 4th, a particularly gnarly movement, rarely has sounded so coherent or flowing while the same symphony's endlessly repetitive finale sounds far less tedious than most. The at times rambling 3rd here is given a strong spine coupled with drop-dead spectacular playing. The three big-name symphonies all live up to their star status. Just listen to the absolutely crushing developmental climax and recapitulation in the 8th's allegro or the coda of the same symphony's finale. Neumann knows how to drive to climaxes, shape primary and secondary themes, and prove to the listener that Dvorak was no mean composer when it came to the sonata ideal.
Not only do we get the nine symphonies, but Supraphon has also given us the Overture Triptych, the symphonic variations, and the four symphonic poems to boot. If anything, these works are even better than the symphonies, and that is saying something. Just listen to the "weeping" strings in the Wood Dove or the witch's brouhaha in the Noonday Witch. Spectacular.
Sound is fine for a recording of its time, while Neumann holds to the convention of the day in not observing exposition repeats, a sad error in my mind. Allegros are generally measured, slow movements flowing, dances are quick, and finale's are played to the hilt. A must have for any Dvorak collection.