Dvorák Complete Symphonies, etc
It is good to be reminded of the fine quality of Czech orchestras other than the Czech Philharmonic. Jirí Belohlávek has established a relative newcomer, the Prague Philharmonia, as an outstanding band, and here the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra under Vladimír Válek, music director for the past 20 years, also establishes its claims to front rank status.
Válek prefers brisk speeds, yet allows ample lift to the Czech dance rhythms. Even when occasionally, as in the Scherzo of the New World Symphony, the tempo verges on the hectic, the articulation and detail cannot be faulted. Even in opening Allegros Válek keeps the tempo steady while encouraging a more expressive lyricism than Kertesz.
Helped by clean, well-balanced sound, textures are admirably clear even in the heaviest tuttis, such as those in the Eighth Symphony. The still excellent recording given to Istvan Kertész and the LSO may have more weight but textures are less refined and Válek secures a dramatically wide dynamic range. The tremolos which open the Fourth Symphony are wonderfully clear, leading to powerful fortissimi.
Slow movements are affectionate and more flowing than those of Kertész. In the slow movement of No 8 the delicate descending scales, first in the woodwind and later on the violins, are deliciously pointed. The first movement of No 3 benefits from a similarly gentle touch, and the lovely second subject has a magical warmth. In the slow movement of No 5 Válek highlights the rustic quality of the writing. The playing has a natural, idiomatic feel throughout, even in the rarer early symphonies.
The New World’s great cor anglais theme may be less luxuriant than in many performances, but its simple folk-like quality is enhanced. The only tempo I question is in the first movement of No 6, but an initial heaviness quickly evaporates when the playing is so crisp and well-sprung. The live recordings of Nos 5 and 7 are appreciably dramatic but there is no lack of tension in the others, which were recorded between 2000 and 2003 in the Czech Radio Studio in Prague.
In the collection of Dvorák’s symphonic poems and overtures, the Janácek Philharmonic may not match the refinement of the Prague Radio Symphony, but their performances are all colourful, strongly characterised and idiomatic. The recordings were made in August 2004 in Ostrava, Slovenia, over only eight days, and compensation for some slackness of ensemble – the late and little-known Hero’s Song, for example – comes in the sense of spontaneity and purpose.The playing is not always shown to advantage by the recording, which is forwardly balanced to the point of coarseness. Heavy tuttis often become congested, and the exposed violins are not as sweet as they might be. Yet like the Supraphon box of symphonies, this is a highly enjoyable collection which has one admiring the composer’s happy inventiveness, not just in the more popular works but in the ambitious series of late symphonic poems based on Czech folk stories.