CD: Dvorak, Symphonies Nos 1 - 9

(Supraphon/RCO Live)

This year's Dvorak anniversary, the centenary of his death, has been marked generously in the concert hall - the Proms this summer were full of his music, for instance. But on disc there has been far less inclination to cash in on the tributes, perhaps because as far as the best-known pieces are concerned the market is saturated already - the current catalogue lists more than 100 versions of the New World Symphony.

Beyond those handfuls of familiar symphonies, concertos and chamber works, however, much of Dvorak's output remains hardly heard at all. With the exception of Rusalka, there is little choice of recorded versions of the operas; what there is has usually been recorded by the Czech label Supraphon. The same applies to the big choral works like the Requiem and the Stabat Mater, as well as the cantata The Spectre's Bride. Even the early symphonies are heard relatively rarely; the recordings of those that set the standard for others to match are still the Decca ones by Istvan Kertesz and the London Symphony Orchestra, dating back to the mid 1960s.

In fact, complete cycles of the Dvorak symphonies remain a real rarity, partly one suspects because the standard line maintains that the first five of them, which all appeared before the composer was 35, are significantly inferior to the four that followed. Dvorak's symphonic mastery, so received wisdom would have it, only set in with the Sixth. Though No 6 was undeniably the work that kick-started his international reputation, it is hardly credible that he could have suddenly developed a command of the form out of nothing, and there is a great deal to be said in favour of all the preceding works. It certainly took Dvorak a while to shake off the influence of Wagner - that can be detected right up to the first movement of the Fourth Symphony, composed in 1874 - but all of the early works show a melodic freshness and sense of adventure even if there are rough edges and longueurs.

That progress towards individuality can be followed in the Supraphon set from the Prague Radio Symphony under Vladimir Valek. In the later works, their performances, which are slightly pallid, lacking in real instrumental pungency and the last touch of finesse, hardly stand up against the finest by international bands. But the performances of the first four are worth hearing, especially as the competition is so scanty, and the recording quality is superior to that on the Kertesz set. The heftiest of them is the First, with its subtitle The Bells of Zlonice, though the 50-plus minutes of music were never intended to be explicitly programmatic; Nos 2 & 3 are tauter and progressively more individual, and the Prague orchestra brings to them a real sense of character and genuine symphonic pacing.

Indeed, their performances seem to gather assurance as the cycle proceeds, probably because of familiarity - any Czech orchestra can surely play the Ninth Symphony blindfolded, for instance. But alongside the performance by the Royal Concertgebouw and Mariss Jansons, Valek's account of even that work sounds under-characterised. The Dutch recording of the New World Symphony, taken from a concert in the Concertgebouw in June last year, launches the orchestra's own record label, following the British examples of the LSO, Hallé and Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, and its appropriate that the first release should be conducted by Jansons, who became its music director this autumn. The performance is full of textural subtlety, with wonderful gradings of dynamics and phrasing, and a slow-burning intensity; this isn't Jansons at his most energising but much more considered, though by the finale the music-making has been ratcheted to a pretty dramatic pitch.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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