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.