DVOŘÁK Slavonic Dances Opp 46 & 72
In my experience it’s fairly rare that conductors who excel in Dvořák’s first set of Slavonic Dances are quite as effective in his second set. Rafael Kubelík with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra provides a rare exception but with Jiří Bělohlávek I sense a preference for, or at least a special empathy with, the second set. Decca’s richly detailed Rudolfinum recording helps consolidate that impression, with its firm bass-line and wide dynamic range.
Bělohlávek is especially effective in the Brahmsian contours of the second and eighth of the Op 72 dances, both involving the very Brahmsian marking grazioso. Go to, say, 3'14" into Op 72 No 2 and note the way upper strings are richly supported by their lower-lying counterparts, or the similarly opulent opening of Op 72 No 8, the whole performance phrased with intelligence and affection. Most important (especially here) is the way Bělohlávek and his players convey the emotional heart of the music, its natural ebb and flow.
The faster dances work too, most notably Op 72 No 3, where Bělohlávek negotiates meaningfully shifting tempi with genuine skill: you intuit a narrative slant to the playing, a sense of yearning in the same dance (1'34", conveyed principally by the woodwinds) before Dvořák launches us on a dizzy, thunderous accelerando. That narrative aspect is at its most poignant in the melancholy Op 72 No 4, while the faster, cheerier central section (3'01") unfolds with a winning smile.
As to Op 46, Bělohlávek offers weighty, purposeful accounts of the faster dances and brings a discernible pastoral element to the slower ones. As with Op 72, whenever tempi vary within a single piece, he marks the transitions with the hand of a true master. All that is really missing in Op 46 is a clinching degree of exhilaration, a breezy quality that Kubelík, Karelejna and Karel Ančerl (with the Vienna SO, only in mono at the moment but soon to be reissued in stereo) bring to the music almost as a matter of course. A brighter, lighter touch is I suppose what I mean, but in all other respects this is an exceptional set of the Slavonic Dances.