Dvořák’s Fifth Symphony – which recording is best?

Andrew Achenbach Tue 8th March 2016

Dvořák’s Fifth is the first wholly personal masterwork in his symphonic canon. Andrew Achenbach separates the great performances on disc from the merely good

Antonín Dvořák was staggeringly productive in 1875: in addition to the E major String Serenade, Moravian Duets, Nocturne in B major, Vanda (a grand opera in five acts) and three major chamber offerings (the First Piano Trio, String Quintet in G major and First Piano Quartet), he completed the fifth of his nine symphonies between June 15 and July 23. A dozen years later, he made minor revisions to the score before its publication in 1888. However, in a cynical ploy to boost sales, Fritz Simrock, who had already printed the composer’s towering D major and D minor symphonies in 1882 and 1885, renumbered the symphony to give the impression that it was a brand new work, even assigning it a higher, entirely bogus opus number – much to Dvořák’s dismay. The composer always thought of it as his Op 24, but Op 76 has become common currency.

Dedicated to the legendary conductor-pianist Hans von Bülow (who pronounced its creator “next to Brahms the most gifted composer of today”) and luminously orchestrated, the deeply lovable Fifth is without doubt the first wholly personal masterwork in Dvořák’s symphonic canon and miraculously distils the very essence of his Czech homeland. It is a work overflowing with life-enhancing inspiration, not least the artlessly serene tune heard at the outset (in Donald Tovey’s estimation “the lightest symphonic opening since Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony”), while the adorably bucolic Scherzo also serves as a happy reminder that the first set of Slavonic Dances was a mere three years away. At the same time, there’s muscle and gritty argument aplenty in the finale. This is as ambitious and original a structure as Dvořák ever devised, harmonically adventurous (it begins in A minor, the symphony’s home key of F major only asserting itself after some 55 bars, before modulating into a remote D flat major for the ineffably tender second subject) and plotted with such unerring instinct that the eventual return in the closing pages of the pentatonic-flavoured material from the first movement has an overwhelming rightness about it.

Where better to begin than with one of the most beloved documents in the entire Dvořák discography, namely Karel Šejna’s famous Supraphon account from January 1952. It’s the earliest of four recordings with the Czech Philharmonic in our survey and radiates a freshness of new discovery and sheer joy in music-making unrivalled in any version since. Indeed, the first movement’s exposition unfolds with such sublime naturalness and wonder that one can only regret Šejna’s decision to forgo the repeat. Not least of this distinguished performance’s many felicities is the uniquely characterful, old-world timbre of the Czech PO, above all its irresistibly earthy winds. Just listen to those woody clarinets at the very start; then try the central Un pochettino più mosso of the slow movement and the enchanting Trio section, the latter a veritable woodland walk with the sounds of nature ringing in our ears. Šejna is also especially appreciative of the score’s middle voices, nowhere more so than in the slow movement, where Dvořák’s viola-writing glows with affecting intimacy. Similarly, the Scherzo (which follows after rather too long a gap) has a skip, flexibility and home-spun familiarity that are beyond compare. Few conductors steer a surer or more thrillingly assertive course through the remarkable finale, though Šejna allows himself plenty of leeway to savour the more lyrical moments: the soaring second subject really does seem to unfold with all the time in the world, and the same is true of that gorgeous A flat major episode at fig F or 4'38". Granted, in the coda you can’t hear the trombone cutting through the texture with the symphony’s opening motif, but, that apart, the performance is bliss from start to finish. The recording still sounds perfectly acceptable, just a tad crunchy in tuttis but commendably full-bodied and atmospheric for its vintage.

Compared with Šejna, Václav Neumann can seem a tad strait-laced. Certainly, in the first two movements at least, there’s nothing to disturb the balmy summer mood. For all his agreeable thoughtfulness and meticulous preparation, Neumann’s comparatively low-key approach lacks something in temperament. Yes, the silk-spun refinement of the orchestral playing is undeniably enticing, as (once again) the Czech PO’s marvellously tangy winds steal the show. Fortunately, tension levels rise a couple of notches for the Scherzo, which is splendidly buoyant, while the finale has both purpose and a certain unruffled majesty. In the last resort, though, Neumann’s isn’t really a conception to set the imagination ablaze. In the Trio’s first repeat, what I presume to be an editing glitch deprives us of the flute’s final A flat quaver second time around (3'29"); otherwise, the early digital sound is pleasingly realistic, if a little unflattering to the strings. A co-production between Supraphon and Denon, this Fifth was initially housed on one full-price CD; now, in its latest mid-price incarnation, it is split across two. Even more unhelpfully, the break occurs between the second and third movements, thereby flouting Dvořák’s specific request for una piccola pausa.

Libor Pešek’s 1988 recording for Virgin Classics shows no decline in orchestral standards; indeed, the execution in every department is flawlessly elegant and seductively sweet-toned (the principal horn sports a gentle wobble in the best Czech tradition). The first movement (repeat included) goes swimmingly, the mood is exultant and all transitions are seamlessly negotiated. There’s a comparable, almost nonchalant, ease to the ensuing Andante con moto although the genial Pešek doesn’t quite capture the dolente marking for the cellos’ opening cantilena. In the Scherzo the quicksilver virtuosity of the orchestra is a marvel, not a single detail being fudged despite the livelier than usual tempo. Conversely, the Trio is somewhat po-faced: Pešek might have made more of the staccato strings’ cheeky diminuendo at four after fig E (4'02" and again at 4'51"). The finale, too, is a little soft-grained and lacking in symphonic sinew – a criticism that can be levelled at the performance as a whole.

Only one conductor has left us two recordings. On his 1992 outing for Chandos, Jiří Bĕlohlávek draws arguably the most articulate and sumptuous response of all from the Czech PO, and his patient, warmly affectionate and generously flexible approach is consistently endearing. Silky poise and songful ardour combine to especially potent effect in the slow movement, at the end of which (after marginally too long a pause) Bĕlohlávek effects an eloquently shaped transition into the Scherzo. It isn’t all plain sailing, mind you. The absence of the first movement repeat will hardly raise eyebrows but Bĕlohlávek’s decision to ignore the second repeat in the Trio is odd.

Fourteen years later, he returned to the work with the BBC SO. The basic conception is unchanged, although this time he takes every repeat, and again some may feel that he’s a bit too liberal with his nudgings in the outer movements: the finale in particular risks sacrificing too much momentum (sample from fig F or 5'05" – the timing is identical on both recordings – and decide for yourself). That said, I do find this a marginally more communicative and integrated reading than its predecessor, and if the BBC SO can’t match the astounding richness, composure and golden tone of its Czech counterpart, there’s absolutely nothing slipshod or routine about its response – one registers an eagerness to please its then recently appointed new chief. More’s the pity that the dryish studio acoustic is so unaccommodating.

Just two more versions emanate from the Czech capital. Vladimír Válek’s live recording on Supraphon with the Prague RSO from 2001 is ruled out of court by his decision to jettison no fewer than 21 bars towards the end of the symphony (at 10'23" between fig N and two before fig O). The effect is disfiguring in the extreme and makes a mockery of Dvořák’s carefully planned scheme. Even without that baffling cut, Válek’s account – charmless, foursquare and unyielding – would have been an also-ran.

Bohumil Kulínský’s, on the other hand, is an exciting find, a very decently engineered performance of abundant character, judicious proportion and plentiful incident. A pupil of František Jílek, Kulínský has evidently thought long and hard about the task in hand. His reading marries keen observation – the horn’s fp diminuendo in the penultimate bar of the first movement, for example – to an impressive cumulative grip. If it’s local colour you’re after, then those bagpiping winds and skirling strings in the Scherzo are hard to resist. Kulínský also nails the symphony’s culmination; the trombone’s final statement of the opening theme is as clear and triumphant as one could wish.

By comparison, Stephen Gunzenhauser’s 1989 Naxos recording with the Slovak PO is plain-spoken to a fault – his brisk, businesslike stroll through the slow movement is a case in point. For all the Scherzo’s agreeably earthy vigour, it never quite beams as it should, while the finale is held on too slack a rein for comfort (and something goes momentarily awry in the woodwind after the cellos’ and basses’ truculent introduction). The highlight is the first movement, which, after a humdrum start, develops into something engaging and heartfelt.

Zdenĕk Košler’s version with the same band from a decade earlier is a rather tidier affair but, even more than on the Naxos CD, the synthetic, multi-miked sound tires the ear, and there’s an inexplicable jump in level for the Scherzo. Like Bĕlohlávek on his Chandos version, Košler opts out of both the exposition repeat in the first movement and the second repeat in the Trio section. That said, he certainly knows his way around this score, and my sole interpretative qualm of any significance concerns his excessive easing of tempo in the finale from six before fig F (4'40") – a tactic which, to my mind, undermines the full shuddering impact of that spooky Quasi andante episode later on, where the bass clarinet’s brief but telling contribution anticipates the world of Dvořák’s late symphonic poems.

Ivan Anguélov steers an altogether more linear course, his boundless vigour getting the better of him only at the very end: not only does he allow the playing of the Slovak RSO to become uncomfortably rowdy but he pays no heed to Dvořák’s shrewdly calibrated poco a poco crescendo at one after fig P (11'40"). Otherwise, Anguélov’s hugely spirited reading is entirely free from self-indulgence, and in the third movement – which bounds along while retaining an attractive bounce – he’s virtually alone in sticking to the tempo primo for the Trio section. Oehms Classics’ close-set sound leaps from the speakers, though there’s the odd untidy corner and page-turn to suggest that session-time was tight.

I love the ruddy complexion of Otmar Suitner’s 1977 performance with the Staatskapelle Berlin. It’s also crammed with new-minted detail: at eight after fig H or 6'35" in the first movement the second clarinet’s bubbling semiquavers jostle for attention in the most playful way imaginable. In Suitner’s gentle hands the slow movement distils great intimacy of feeling (when the first violins enter ppdolente at bar 10 or 0'24", the effect is supremely touching). How skilfully, too, he floats those suspended string chords which act as a bridge to the Scherzo, while the dotted rhythms in the Trio are lifted with such delicate grace that I defy you not to smile. Suitner’s band may not possess the lustre of bigger-name outfits but there’s no missing its abundant musicality and personality. The sound is reassuringly explicit, too, with wide stereo spread and clean-limbed bass-lines.

A disciple of Karel Ančerl, Martin Turnovský is another outstandingly sympathetic exponent, an interpreter of the old school who seems to have inherited his mentor’s ability to bring a cherishable wholeness of vision to the finished article. The Bambergers respond in kind with beautifully blended playing (witness the trombones’ colouring in the Trio’s heaven-sent codetta and finale’s second subject). From the outset there’s a benign glow and relaxed bonhomie about this music-making, the relative restraint of the first two movements leading to the easy swagger of the Scherzo (“the sound of an orchestra enjoying itself” purr my listening-notes) and a masterfully paced finale, which powerfully demonstrates Turnovský’s acute grasp of the bigger picture. The 1988 co-production with Bavarian Radio offers a truthful concert-hall balance, which misses only the last ounce of clarity.

Space is at a premium, so let me quickly dispense with a trio of stragglers. Vladimir Ghiaurov at the helm of the Plovdiv PO presides over a depressingly earthbound display. Sir Andrew Davis’s blandly efficient and terminally studio-anchored 1980 recording with the Philharmonia has precious little to commend it, save some tolerably spick and span orchestral playing. At least Julian Kovatchev and his sturdy Trieste band exhibit infinitely greater commitment as well as a genuine empathy for this repertoire but, with the best will in the world, it’s difficult to recommend it: the finale in particular proceeds in unhelpfully piecemeal fashion.

Those irresistibly vocal clarinets at the start of Rafael Kubelík’s 1972 account with the Berlin Philharmonic immediately make you sit up and listen; and a glance at the score confirms that Dvořák’s wonderfully buoyant melody does indeed rise from piano to forte within the first three bars. It’s an auspicious launch to a reading which, in its expressive ardour, soaring lyricism and invincible grip, has rarely been matched. With the BPO on immaculate form, Kubelík’s is a performance brimful of idiomatic insight and watchful sensitivity: in the first movement, for example, how subtly he emphasises the grandioso marking at figs A and H (0'47" and 10'24"); and what striking premonitions of the New World he locates in those fiery tuttis at the heart of the finale. Moreover, the Czech maestro’s preference for antiphonally divided first and second fiddles really comes into its own in the Scherzo, where the violins’ forzando cross accents from nine before fig B or 2'00" (6'59" in the da capo repeat) have an infectious physicality and swing about them. The recording still sounds well, if a little fuzzy around the edges and light in the bass. 

Few interpreters transport us more beguilingly into the Fifth than Mariss Jansons, whose 1989 version for EMI with the Oslo PO exhibits an exhilarating assurance and chipper conviction that count for a very great deal. The slow movement is distinctive, hypnotically concentrated at a more stately tempo than is customary, to contrast all the more boldly with the movements that flank it. Jansons’s challengingly swift Scherzo doesn’t faze his willing cohorts one bit, although it might perhaps have twinkled a bit more. Similarly, the Latvian maestro’s finale is a superbly crisp, athletic creature, and I would only question his excessive (and troublingly inorganic) pulling back for that achingly lovely passage beginning at fig M or 9'31".

In the mid-1960s, the LSO set down two versions. István Kertész’s commercially successful Decca recording from December 1965 played a key role in raising the work’s profile and, returning to it after a considerable period, I’m struck anew by its uncomplicated breeziness. The high spot is the Scherzo, which has a cheerful exuberance, but elsewhere Kertész paints a slightly featureless landscape, his easy-going direction falling some way short in canny instinct (the finale is too bluff and excitable by half). Nor is the playing of the LSO always ideally polished (in the Andante con moto there’s some dodgy trombone intonation from eight before fig E or 5'23"). Kenneth Wilkinson’s Kingsway Hall engineering is remarkably informative, providing you don’t mind the intermittent rumble of the Piccadilly Line (beware, too, the ugly tape splice at seven after fig I or 11'06" in the opening movement). By the way, try and find Decca’s bargain twofer containing Symphonies Nos 5, 7 8 and 9 if you want to avoid having to change discs.

Witold Rowicki’s sparky February 1967 account for Decca is infinitely more articulate, a painstakingly prepared reading of formidable drive and intellect that shaves nearly four minutes off Kertész’s (and, yes, he does observe the first-movement repeat). Rowicki’s daringly propulsive tempo for the opening movement (there’s nothing ma non troppo about this Allegro) sets the template, yet the orchestral playing loses nothing in composure and textures maintain a see-through clarity throughout. He also sets a blistering pace for the Allegro molto finale, yet eases back on the throttle for the second subject, which has plenty of songful warmth both times around. The two middle movements – separated, yet again, by far too long a gap – court rather less in the way of controversy, the Trio section in particular benefiting from Rowicki’s rhythmic acuity and insistence on precise note values.

Neeme Järvi and the RSNO on Chandos give a big-hearted, impulsive rendering that’s a little too unkempt and blowsy to challenge the best. That Järvi loves the symphony is not in doubt: his Trio fairly winks with mischief, while the finale’s lyrical material is as tenderly shaped as any. His woodwind roster, too, prove an immensely personable bunch (the principal clarinet in particular). On the debit side, the washy acoustic blunts too many contours, while cruelly exposing some thinness of violin tone and swallowing too much detail (the flutes’ and clarinets’ rising staccato thirds from 10 before fig E or 7'45" in the first movement barely register). Nor is discipline all it might be: in the slow movement the first violins’ decidedly ropy descending demi-semiquavers at 15 after fig E or 6'48" surely merited a retake.

I’ve left the earliest recording till last. It dates from October 15, 1936, and derives from privately made acetates of a Royal Philharmonic Society concert in Queen’s Hall with the LPO under Sir Thomas Beecham. A volatile display it is, too, inimitably poetic one moment, downright wilful the next. Explosive and songful by turns, the first movement flies by the seat of its pants, Beecham’s hyper-expressive treatment of the second subject extending to the ensuing Andante con moto, which he drags out to over nine minutes. Such is his magnetic personality, though, that he pulls it off. Similarly, the protracted transition into the Scherzo has to be heard to be believed. I should add that there are some damaging cuts in the last two movements. Ultimately, it’s more a dazzling vehicle for Beecham and the high-class orchestra he had formed four years earlier – but what chutzpah!

The verdict

Make no mistake, Dvořák’s F major Symphony has been exceptionally lucky on disc, and there is a healthy crop of versions that I wouldn’t want to be without. Šejna’s account is a classic of the gramophone. Nor should any self-respecting Dvořákian overlook the claims of Rowicki, Kubelík, Jansons and Bĕlohlávek’s remake. Suitner, Turnovský, Kulínský and Anguélov will also handsomely reward collectors prepared to venture off the beaten track. A desert-island Fifth? For me, it has to be the Šejna, but if you just can’t live with mono sound then I’d suggest Kubelík’s imperious BPO rendering, Suitner’s bright-eyed Staatskapelle Berlin version and Turnovský’s delectably unforced Bamberg SO performance as nourishing alternatives.

The Majestic Choice 

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Rafael Kubelík 

(DG) 

A magnificently authoritative, enviably cogent and supple Fifth under the baton of this great musician – with the Berliners at their lustrous, eager best and warmly responsive to Kubelík’s idiomatic insights. The finale in particular has an invincible inevitability about it.

 

The Earthy Choice 

Staatskapelle Berlin / Otmar Suitner 

(Berlin Classics)

Intensely alive, bright as a button and totally without idiosyncrasy, yet blessed with great intimacy of feeling in the slow movement, Suitner’s is an enormously characterful and memorably combustible reading guaranteed to warm the cockles of any true Dvořákian.

 

The Relaxed Choice 

Bamberg SO / Martin Turnovský 

(Aulos) 

Turnovský’s direction is humane, unflashy and scrupulously faithful to both the letter and the spirit of the score, to which the Bambergers respond with pleasure and bonhomie. Indeed, the whole performance conveys a rigour and wisdom that are immensely gratifying.

 

The Top Choice 

Czech Philharmonic Orchestra / Karel Šejna 

(Supraphon)

This legendary account continues to entrance across the decades. Šejna’s characteristically selfless, spontaneous and clear-sighted conception is free from artifice, and the Czech PO’s matchlessly idiomatic playing is a joy.

 

Selected Discography

Date / Artists / Record company (review date)

1936 LPO / Beecham / Symposium SYMCD1096/7

1952 Czech PO / Šejna / Supraphon SU3852-2 (4/58R)

1965 LSO / Kertész / Decca 430 046-2DC6 (4/92); 467 472-2DH2

1967 LSO / Rowicki / Decca 478 2296DB6

1972 BPO / Kubelík / DG 463 158-2GB6

1977 Staatskapelle Berlin / Suitner / Berlin Classics 0300036BC

1979 Slovak PO / Košler / Brilliant 92369

1980 Philh Orch / A Davis / RCA 82876 70830-2 (2/83R)

1982 Czech PO / Neumann / Suraphon SU3704-2; SU3706-2

1987 RSNO / N Järvi / Chandos CHAN8552 (12/87); CHAN9991

1988 Czech PO / Pešek / Virgin 561853-2 (7/90R)

1988 Bamberg SO / Turnovský / Aulos AUL66002

1989 Slovak PO / Gunzenhauser / Naxos 8 550270 (11/91); 8 501701

1989 Oslo PO / Jansons / EMI 585702-2 (7/90R); 500878-2 (2/06); Brilliant 92779

1990 Plovdiv PO / Ghiaurov / Capriole CA14005

1991 Prague PO / Kulínský / Multisonic 31 0072-2

1992 Czech PO / Bělohlávek / Chandos CHAN9475 (2/97)

1996 Orch of Giuseppe Verdi Th, Trieste / Kovatchev / Real Sound RS053 0134

2001 Slovak Rad SO / Anguélov / Oehms Classics OC376 (1/06)

2001 Prague Rad SO / Válek / Supraphon SU3802-2 (3/05)

2006 BBC SO / Bělohlávek / Warner 2564 63235-2 (2/07)

This article originally appeared in the October 2011 issue of Gramophone. To find out more about subscribing to Gramophone, visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe

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