on 9 December 2013
Much as I have always loved the Dvorak symphonies, including the early ones, it is very difficult to bring off the finales, which have a habit of sprawling or at least conveying less sense of structure than the other movements. Although the sound cannot quite match the finest of more modern sets Rowicki is a highly convincing interpreter of Dvorak's tricky fourth movements, making them seem like the true symphonic culmination that they should be. Many conductors simply fail to convince here but Rowicki demonstrates great mastery. This alone makes this set worth acquiring.
on 5 October 2013
I had all the Dvorak symphonies on L.P. conducted by Kertesz in the 60'. More recently I have I bought recordings, though not complete sets, by Barbirolli, Kubelik, Dorati, Neumann and Guzenhauser [extremely good]. I borrowed the Kertesz set on C.D. from a friend with a view to purchasing it and to renew my memories of these fine performances. I also remembered hearing one or two discs in the 60's from the Rowicky set and being very,very surprised how fine they were, even better than the Kertesz versions. I listened to the Kertesz set many times, but decided to go for the Rowicky set, as a new set would mean that I would listen very carefully to the performances.
I have no regrets at all. These are wonderful performances. The sound is wonderful too, with much depth and clarity. There isn't the slightly glassy quality of the Kertesz set. The bass lines and inner detail are superb and the overall balance is perfect.
Rowicky knows when to push ahead and when to relax. His performance of 8th is as fine as Kertesz's legendary 8th [and so are the versions by Barbirolli and Dorati].Rowicki's versions of 4,5,6 and 7 are finer than Kertesz's.
My only reservation was the Carnival overture which I felt was a bit dull and plain compared with Kertesz. The other day I played it and turned up the bass and volume and it seemed a different recording, and just as fine.
I really recommend this set. The Kertesz is very fine, but these performances by Rowicki do have the edge over him, and in superior sound.
This set can be recommended enthusiastically both to collectors of the complete Dvorak symphonies and even – at this price – to more selective shoppers wanting just a particular symphony or two. Whichever you want, you will not find a bad performance here among nine symphonies and four overtures. The recorded sound is not at all bad either, although there is a particular issue with the recording of the great D minor symphony, #7.
Myself, I acquired the set for my own education in the matter of the Dvorak symphonies. At some stage in the 1950’s, it seems, the recognition finally dawned that there are 9 symphonies, not 5, by Dvorak. I can still remember a certain amount of transitional confusion as the old numbering - under which the D major featured as #1, the D minor op 70 as #2 and the New World as #5 – was being supplanted by the series-numbers that everyone accepts now. However I don’t find that the earlier symphonies nos 1-5 are even yet thought of as full participants in the Dvorak canon, the way the first five symphonies of Beethoven or Mahler are treated in relation to those masters. So this was where a complete set played its part: forget what the concert planners let us hear, forget the ingrained attitudes towards these first five and consider the Dvorak cycle as a unity. When I did that I got some surprises.
What I found myself thinking after several complete tours of the territory was that symphonies 2-5 were far better than the two most popular numbers, namely #8 and the New World. My surprise related to nos 2-5, not to nos 8 and 9, because I have always considered #8 to be thoroughly second-rate and even the New World lacks freshness in its inspiration. I pass over the Bells of Zlonice because it is too big for its boots, although interesting in its way. The next three numbers are full of fresh and spontaneous invention, and #5 is an absolute jewel, a rival for the second place on the Dvorak podium usually awarded to #6. Even #6 reappraised itself in my mind to some extent. For me, it has the most celestial opening sequence to be found in any symphony, by anyone at all, in the 19th century. However its scherzo is a bit dull, and Dvorak’s title ‘furiant’ for it should have been a warning. This is not the only case I can think of where the master calls in nationalism to divert attention from flagging inspiration.
These performances were recorded between 1965 and 1972 and that is something significant in its own right. As well as getting the facts straight about how many symphonies Dvorak actually composed, there was a renewed interest in how they should be performed. The Czech authorities were not being helpful because they were trying to protect what they thought of as the integrity of their musical culture from western contamination. Occasional recordings of the Czech Philharmonic conducted by Ancerl or Kosler were released on Supraphon, but in default of access to more Czech conductors the ‘west’ got as close as it could and started to establish its own Dvorak culture with the help of Kertesz, who was Hungarian, and Rowicki, who was Polish. Kertesz got more attention at the time and probably since, so another reason for having this collection is to rediscover the work of Rowicki in helping to create the new tradition. To help matters, this was the heyday of the London Symphony Orchestra, so given good enough recorded sound we should be well placed to hear Dvorak’s famous orchestration in all its majesty.
The sound has been remastered as ADD, and with one important caveat this has been well done. It took a few hearings before my ear adjusted to the sound of some of the noisier climaxes, but adjusted it has and in general I hope you will find no problem with them. However there is still an issue because for all its richness Dvorak’s orchestration can be ever so slightly messy as well, and a certain perversity in the nature of things has meant that this approaches the status of a problem where the music is at its very greatest, in the D minor Symphony #7. This is a symphony that stands comparison with anyone’s, come Beethoven come Brahms come who you like. It deserves all Tovey’s plaudits and more, but Tovey also hints, rather obscurely, at a problem with the sound in the climaxes and I am guessing that he means much what I mean. Should the remastered sound have done better? Modern technology could make brilliant sound out of Schumann’s orchestration let alone Dvorak’s, but maybe it was decided that there was a limit to propriety in the matter and the sound as we have it is the price (and not a high one) of that colossal inspiration.
It is unlikely that each and every one of thirteen performances will be the outright favourite for any one listener, but this is a distinguished set by any standard, and I for one feel better educated musically for getting to know it. It comes as a box containing six paper envelopes. The discs are a very tight fit and I had a struggle keeping my finger clear of the playing surfaces. There is a so-so liner note by Robert Layton, quite informative but a bit platitudinous when ‘discussing’ the actual music. How close all this comes to answering anyone else’s prayer I have no way of knowing, but it would be very special tastes and requirements that could be disappointed. As a footnote regarding symphony #7, the famous accounts from Kubelik and Monteux are still of course available, but if you search the UK market thoroughly you might be able also to find a particularly interesting performance by Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt.
on 13 August 2015
This is the most tremendous bargain - I got it new from a marketplace seller for about 12 quid.
The performances are superb, so don't be put off by indifferent reviews in the Penguin Guide. Rowicki's approach to Dvorak is brisk and vigorous, but I didn't find them rushed or unlyrical. They come across as more classical works than the late-romantic wallows that we are used to. The sound suits this approach as it is fresh and immediate; the 1960s recordings do not show their age. Squeezed onto 6 CDs with 4 overtures too, this is great value.