This is a wonderful record all round, one of the finest ever performances of both works, allied to a demonstration-class recording as natural as it is stunning.
Starting, as the disc does, with the ninth, I initially tried to list all the moments, both interpretative and sonic that blew me away, but the list was just way too long. I can do best by comparing it to my favourites of the past.
Performances first. My first recording of the 9th was Toscanini's old orchestra, the NBC SO, renamed the Symphony of the Air: a live, conductor less recording literally dripping with emotion. Then, like most who grew up in the sixties, the Kertesz became the new benchmark for me. It has wholeness and a momentum, and an internal logic driven by conductor as well as composer which never fails to grip. It also has an amazing feeling of fresh inspiration, of being caught "on the wing". Then came Kubelik, who made the piece seem fresh as a daisy, Karajan who made it feel a truly big-picture symphonic work, Donhanyi in the earliest days of cd, who gave the work a gentle bath of radiance, and so on, down to a recent favourite, a Delos recording with the New Jersey S. O. and Czech born Zdenek Macal.
So does Fischer surpass these? Well, he doesn't try to, and that's a great thing in some ways. This is a version with possibly more unadulterated Dvorak than anyone else's. Fischer trusts everything Dvorak wrote, for damned good reason, and the result is a reading that is straightforward in the best sense, in that it is straight as a die, with a feeling of absolute honesty. In the final analysis, it may not have the last half-ounce of Kertesz's rare blend of internal logic and instinctiveness or Kubelik's vernal freshness, but it has the best features of all versions and is a splendid achievement of interpretative synthesis and integrity.
The performance of the eighth is, if anything, even better. This is a harder work to present persuasively than the 9th, because it's so filled with ebb and flow, major to minor contrast and instrumental incident. Its sheer exuberance of ideas seems to get in the way of cohesiveness for some conductors (Jarvi, for instance).
One who brought it off, for me at least, was Barbirolli with the Halle (currently available at super budget HMV classics price, coupled with Tortelier's burnished reading of the cello concerto: surely one of the all time great bargains). It's a reading of power and energy but allied to warmth and lyricism. Szell came close equally long ago, and is available on SACD, but I haven't heard the SACD version and the original wasn't renowned for great sound. Kertesz and Kubelik are both terrific, Rowicki very good (emphasising the "spring symphony" feel) and Colin Davis did a marvellous reading for Philips (currently available with the 7th & 9th on a bargain twofer). As I remember it, it was very lyrical, nicely sprung and very straight. The Jarvi version has always received high marks from the Penguin and the Good CD guides, but I've never really been persuaded by it: it hangs a bit too loose to me, and falls for the trap of highlighting incident and ignoring the demands which an unusual structure place on symphonic cogency. Paradoxically I also thought the recording a bit too "big" to allow enough light and detail on some of those incidents.
Fischer does not ignore those demands of incident and cogency. Yes, all the incidents are richly presented: e.g. the trumpet and trombones just before the first movement coda, the trumpet and flute offsetting each other in the last movement, - they're all there, (and how !!!) but there's also a strength and a direction which doesn't fuss over these incidents, lovely though they are, but keeps a beautiful tread in both ebb and flow. The writing for all instruments is varied and well shared around the orchestra and Fischer and his players present all that variation and sharing within a strong forward momentum.
In both works they are helped by superb sound. This is an integrated, clean, fresh but warm and rich sound in which, like the interpretation, all is natural. The orchestra is clearly raked in height as it would be in most concert halls, and instruments are always in their right and proper place. When they play supporting roles, they are quiet but present. When they play major roles, they come from their places with real presence. The soundstage is splendidly integrated too. I won't even use the word (stereo) separation here. Yes, its higher strings on the left, lower on the right and so on, but they combine to present a living canvass, never merely a left and right picture. Brass, in particular, is always bold and clear and never brazen or forced.
Referring back to the Macal recording of the 9th on Delos, a 20 bit Virtual Reality Dolby surround recording, the sound there is sumptuous and spectacular but not quite as natural sounding (I really must find a new adjective soon) as this new disc.
There are some minor losses in this naturalness. The last appearance of the sotto strings in the last minute of the ninth doesn't have that lovely "extra" lift that Kertesz gives them before the brass conclude and in the eighth, the strings (again) don't have the almost autumnal throb which Barbirolli gave them in the slow movement to set against their springtime sprightliness in the first, but it depends on what kind of sound you prefer I guess, - all I can say is that everything in the new disc sounds clean, warm, proper proportioned, in complete internal harmony and yes, at the risk of repeating myself ad nauseam, natural. But unlike some clean sounding SACDs I've heard, it's never, ever sonically bland or boring.
With this recording, Philips, working with DSD, throws the bloody-minded perversity of their Universal Classics stable mates who persist with PCM (and dodgy transfers) into very stark relief.
Anyone who loves these works will want to have more than one version. I try and keep the number of New Worlds I have at any one time down to three. But there is no way that this disc could not figure in a self-respecting Dvorak collection. Whatever other versions you have, get the Fischer. You won't regret it. So far, my orchestral disc of the year.