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Antonin Dvorak
Cello Concerto in B minor, op. 104
Symphonic Variations, op. 78.
Peter Wispelwey, cello; Ivan Fischer conducting the Budapest Festival Orchestra

Symphony No. 7 in D minor
Suite in A ("American") 
Ivan Fischer conducting the Budapest Festival Orchestra

Requiem, op 89
Symphony No. 8 in G major, op. 88
KrassimiraStoyanova (soprano), Mihoko Fujimura (alto), Klaus Florian Vogt (tenor), Thomas Quasthoff (bass); Vienna Singverein; MarissJansons conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Review By Wayne Donnelly
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  Few would dispute the Dvorak's status as the preeminent cello concerto of the entire symphonic repertoire. This melodic masterpiece turns  up almost every season on some program I'm attending, and it has been recorded by nearly every cellist of any standing. Given that popularity, I was somewhat bemused to realize that my three favorite recordings of it are all mono: the patrician Casals/Szell/Czech Philharmonic from the 1930s; the still-unequaled Rostropovich/Talich/Czech Philharmonic on a 1950s Parliament LP,  and the poetic Fournier/Kubelik/ Vienna Philharmonic (originally Decca; I have a lovely Japanese Super Analog LP reissue). I also have later recordings by Rostropovich and Fournier, but those stereo recordings don't match the interpretive intensity of their mono predecessors. This new release, which was recorded in concert before a raptly quiet audience in December 2009, claims a metaphorical top shelf space as my favorite digital-era recording of the concerto.

The versatile Peter Wispelwey is equally at home with early music on a baroque cello or the romantic and modern cello repertoire. His playing here is closer to Fournier than to the other two paradigms mentioned generally sensitive and fine-grained, fiery when called for, with consistently gorgeous tonality and effortless technical command. I have enjoyed many of his previous recordings, but I find this Dvorak his most impressive release to date.

As I have come to expect from Fischer and his wondrous BFO, the orchestral contribution is spectacular at once note-perfect and heart-poundingly exciting. Fischer's ability to illuminate often glossed-over felicities through scrupulous attention to the subtleties of the score is fully in evidence. This eloquent, fully realized interpretation is worthy to stand next to Messrs. Szell, Talich and Kubelik.

The Symphonic Variations is a most welcome filler. Dvorak was the most prolific melodist of the entire 19th century. In addition to his nine symphonies, he composed numerous collections of tuneful and rhythmically vital orchestral works. This single composition's 29 brief movements contain enough inspired dance tunes to serve as the foundation of a lesser composer's career. The listener will likely be reminded of the composer's beloved Slavonic Dances. Performance and sound are marvelous.

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The Seventh completes Fischer's traversal of Dvorak's highly popular last three symphonies. Brahms and Dvorak shared a great mutual admiration, and echoes of mutual influence can be heard throughout both composers' canons. The D minor has always struck me as the most "Brahmsian" of Dvorak's symphonies, and two recordings come to mind that for me support that impression: the lovely RCA Red Seal Monteux/LSO (I have it on a Classic Records LP reissue), and the passionately powerful live concert recording by Giulini and the Berlin Philharmonic on a recently released Testament CD set. Other fine recordings from usual suspects Kubelik, Kertesz, and especially Talich (uniquely idiomatic, but in dim mono sound). Like Fischer's recent recordings of the Eighth and Ninth Symphonies, this Seventh is an easy recommendation. Fisher balances beautifully the lyrical and dramatic elements of this great score, and the sound on this SACD, as is typical with this label, is highly dynamic and tonally gorgeous.

Filling out this disc is the "American" Suite, another of those lesser known but wholly engaging Dvorak orchestral ear-pleasers. Originally written for piano while the composer was in residence in the U.S., this work's five movements showcase several "American-sounding" melodies, infused with Dvorak's characteristic rhythmic bounce and full-blooded orchestration. I expect it will be new to many listeners, but it is well worth knowing.

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I had the great pleasure of hearing Dvorak's Requiem just a couple of weeks ago in a performance by Chicago's Grant Park Symphony, a fine professional orchestra that plays a full summer of free outdoor concerts each year. In all my years of concert-going, this was the first time I have heard this unduly neglected choral treasure. Requiem masses from Mozart,  Verdi, Brahms, Faure, even Berlioz with its need for extra performing forces -- all are programmed far more frequently than the Dvorak, though its musical qualities are fully worthy of more frequent hearings.

This release documents live performances from February 2009. With excellent soloists and the participation of the celebrated Vienna Singverein chorus (which was celebrating its 150th anniversary that year), conductor Maris Janssons leads the Royal Concertgebouw in a luminous, beautifully paced performance that leaves no doubt about the worthiness of this too neglected mass. I compared this performance to the London LP set from Kertesz/LSO. As we might expect from that great Dvorakian, Kertesz also illuminates the work. Collectors who already own that set may not feel the need to acquire this new one, as London's recorded sound is quite good. But those looking for a first recording can confidently choose the new SACD set.

A welcome bonus is the stirring performance of the Eighth Symphony, from concerts the previous season. Janssons shares with Ivan Fischer a predilection for illuminating subtle details, and if his Eighth feels marginally less "Slavic" than some of the aforementioned conductors, this is nonetheless an exciting reading that brings great energy to that wonderful synphony.

This 2-SACD set features truly extraordinary live performance sonics, which convey with precision the stunning acoustical clarity of Amsterdam's Concertgebouw, surely one of the top five concert halls in the world. Do yourself a favor and buy this terrific release, which is offered at a special low price.

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