Dvorák Slavonic Dances Op 46 & 72
Performances of consummate wisdom and poise under a conductor at the peak of his powers in repertoire of which he was an undisputed master. Alas, comparative listening with previous incarnations on Supraphon Historical a decade ago is definitely not to this new Special Edition’s advantage. In attempting to eradicate any vestige of tape-hiss, the transfer engineers have sucked out too much mid-range warmth from the original sound-picture (string timbre in particular suffers badly, acquiring an oddly pinched, synthetic quality), and there’s an overall lack of bloom, depth and atmosphere. These shortcomings are all the more galling given that the actual music-making is frequently touched by genius.
Set down over three days in July 1950, Talich’s famous second recording of the Slavonic Dances positively beams with heart-warming affection and life-enhancing spontaneity. This remains one of the truly essential versions of these captivating pieces. If some of the livelier dances have not quite the ebullience heard on this partnership’s pre-war HMV set or Sejna’s delectable 1959 account with the same band, there’s a fluidity of pulse, dynamic control, rhythmic snap and mastery of the singing line that take the breath away: few (if any) interpreters since have matched Talich’s sublimely articulate readings for subtlety of expression, old-world nostalgia or irresistible local colour. As an appendix, Supraphon includes a tantalising four-minute extract of Talich rehearsing the penultimate dance (in C major) from the second series.
Many similar virtues illuminate Talich’s hugely affecting 1953 recording of Novák’s gorgeous Slovak Suite, though here I must declare a marginal preference for Sejna’s wholly intoxicating, springier and rather more agreeably engineered Brno account of 15 years later. It’s preceded by the first appearance on CD of a splendidly buoyant rendering from 1954 of Smetana’s Czech Song (a 12-minute cantata featuring an ideally alert and personable contribution from the Czech Philharmonic Chorus), as well as an utterly entrancing account of Suk’s Fairy Tale Suite, where the orchestral playing attains giddy heights of tender eloquence, ardour and drama. Sad to report, this latter item (transferred from 78s and recorded in a somewhat cramped acoustic) now sounds even less palatable than it did before.
Volume 3 brings brings more Suk, his mighty tone-poem Ripening in a performance which marries elasticity and sure-footed sweep to an overwhelming emotional clout (no surprise to learn that it was Talich who presided over the 1918 world premiere). Few grumbles, either, about Talich’s dignified view of Janácek’s Taras Bulba. Ancerl may just have the edge in terms of edge-of-seat excitement and thrusting spectacle but Talich sees to it that the peroration resounds with a lofty grandeur that lingers long in the memory. Magnificent conducting, make no mistake; a pity about the remasterings.