This is a set that no one who cares about Dvorák’s symphonies can afford to ignore. These performances really do belong in every serious collection.
Supraphon has finally released Václav Neumann’s 1970s Dvorák symphony cycle, and what a wonderful event it is. These performances are, on the whole, fresher and freer than his digital remakes, fine though those are, and more warmly recorded. The only exception is the somewhat shrill engineering in the First Symphony, but in general the sonics are comparable to other cycles of the period—Kertész, Kubelik, and Rowicki—and this is unquestionably the best played of them all. It’s difficult to overestimate the value of having the Czech PhilharmonicRead more in top form in this music, but the sound of the ensemble really does speak for itself. Kubelik’s Berlin Philharmonic might have the best strings, and the London Symphony for Kertész and Rowicki the boldest horns, but the Czech Philharmonic has the best ensemble, top to bottom, at least in Dvorák.
Consider one example: the climax of the first movement of the Seventh Symphony, a work that shows both the orchestra and Neumann at their very best. If you imprinted on this performance, nothing else can match it in power and intensity. The passionate lyricism of the strings, the thrilling low timpani roll that propels the trombones’ upward arpeggio, and those bright, sforzando trumpets combine to make an unforgettable impression (sound clip below), and it’s all exactly as Dvorák wrote it. Interestingly, where Neumann deviates from the printed page, as in the main theme’s fortissimo counterstatement in the first movement, or in the work’s concluding chorale, he gives the doubling parts to the trumpets rather than the horns, as in most other performances, and this too proves the better decision.
This brings us to Neumann’s own contribution. Traditionally he has gotten short shrift compared to the competition. Some of this was politics. In the 1960s and ’70s the British naturally preferred anything featuring the LSO, and Kubelik was a symbol of democratic resistance to Communist rule. He also had the superb Berlin Philharmonic at his disposal, rather than his usual Bavarian Radio forces, and Deutsche Grammophon behind him. Neumann, on LP at least, was spottily available on generally horrible pressings, and he had the disadvantage to be taking over from Ancerl, an indisputably great conductor who wound up on the right side of Cold War politics. Then Neumann remade all the symphonies in digital sound, a set that Supraphon promoted intensely, and this earlier effort simply disappeared from sight.
In general, Neumann’s approach might sound a touch “old fashioned”—quick movements move at moderate speeds, slow movements flow without ever dragging. Although not quite so slow in the allegros, conductors like Otto Klemperer come to mind. And yet, Neumann is by no means lacking in energy. His Eighth Symphony is as fresh (and swift) as any in the catalog. He whips up quite a frenzy in the finale of the Fifth, and this Third Symphony might just be the best on disc. Its first movement is as energetic as can be, the central funeral march is gorgeous and never stiff, while the finale actually sounds less mechanical at this moderate speed than it does when taken more quickly. The Sixth seldom has been paced more naturally, and as Dvorák fans all know, Ancerl’s benchmark performance is a tough act to follow. Neumann has nothing to fear from the comparison, especially in the coda of the finale, which is stunning.
Neumann always did well by the “New World” Symphony, and in only a few spots in the first two symphonies does Neumann sound less than fully engaged (though in the former, he’s still more effective than in his digital remake). The third movement of the Second, particularly, needs to be crisper. Suitner on Berlin Classics is unmatched here. For the most part, though, Neumann’s performances have held up extremely well. In particular, he offers an object lesson in phrasing and, especially, the correct use of legato in lyrical passages. So many performances today, perhaps encouraged by the perpetual staccato of the early music movement, break up Dvorák’s melodies into fragments, whereas Neumann conducts in whole paragraphs.
The couplings add greatly to this set’s attractions. They are uniformly excellent. The Symphonic Variations overflows with character; the three concert overtures belong together (they share a theme, heard at the outset of In Nature’s Realm), and these versions of the four late symphonic poems rank with the best available. They are also very well recorded. So to summarize, this is a set that no one who cares about Dvorák’s symphonies can afford to ignore. Even if you have the versions just mentioned, these performances really do belong in every serious collection.
A great collection of the Dvorak symphoniesApril 25, 2014By S. Smith (Washington, DC)See All My Reviews"While I have several great performances of individual symphonies (Davis/Amsterdam on the 7th, Dohnanyi/Cleveland on the 8th, etc.) it wasn't until I heard Macal conduct them in DC (he is one of those conductors who can make the National Symphony sound world class) that I realized it might be worth getting his entire set with Milwaukee. Glad that I did. Milwaukee sounds great, and Macal's feel for the music (which includes the tone poems) is superb. I'd heard about this set, and since I love the Czech Philharmonic, I thought I'd get it. Delivery from Arkiv was fast, and I immediately put them on my hard drive (later on my 180G classic I-Pod). They do not disappoint! It's a different take, but all sound and feel wonderful. I still love my individuals, and the Macal set, but these take their place right up there. I'm still getting to know them, but it's great to have some choices which are all feature great conducting, superb playing, and solid acoustics. Thanks to Macal and Neumann, the early symphonies and tone poems are now part of my Dvorak palette."Report Abuse
Best Dvorak SymphoniesSeptember 4, 2012By Jack Bowyer (Santa Rosa, CA)See All My Reviews"I purchased this wonderful collection as a birthday gift for my perfect daughter. It was an easy choice. I have owned individual copies of these (Neumann's) Dvorak Symphonies for MANY years. They are among my favorite discs in a 1200 volume Classical Music collection. While Dvorak is ALWAYS good, the Czech Philharmonic and Neumann have a profound understand of these works that easily raises them above the best efforts of all challenging discs. Give them a listen. I think you will agree."Report Abuse
glorious orchestraSeptember 4, 2012By ben cutler (somerville, NJ)See All My Reviews"The Czech Philharmonic after WWII was always noted for its unique, distinctive mellow sound as well as its disciplined playing. Over the years, and under the impact of listening to other orchestra's recordings plus their own change of personnel this unique sound has gradually been lost. Many collectors buy these recordings just for the orchestra sound alone. Happily 1974 + or - a year was still a good yesr for the Czech Philharmonic and Vaclav Neumann who was a more interesting musician back in the '50s than he was later seems to have found himself for these performances. They are simply glorious and are much superior to his later Dvorak. It is a truism that it is almost impossible to do Dvorak badly. But these performances are so 'right' that it is easy to forget even the likes of Beecham in the 8th and Monteux in the 7th. Now if only Supraphon could compile a set of Dvorak Symphonies from the '50s with the likes of Sejna, Chalabala and others with the Czech Philharmonic then at the very top of its unique sound."Report Abuse