Vaclav Smetacek conducting the Prague Symphony Orchestra
Antonin Dvorak: Symphony No. 8 in G major, op. 88
Ludwig van Beethoven: Egmont Overture
Antonin Dvorak: Symphony No. 9
("From the New World")
As a novice music lover, just getting started at the tender age of 14, I dutifully joined the Columbia Record Club, and was thereby introduced to the work of Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, and George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. Along with Charles Munch and Fritz Reiner (who were then in residence in Boston and Chicago). American orchestras and their mostly foreign-born conductors pretty much dominated the record market in the 50s and 60s. If there was any competition at all, it came from Herbert Von Karajan (who seemed determined to record every piece of music ever written) and Otto Klemperer (who religiously stuck to the standard repertory).
But the records I came to value most were
produced by budget labels that put me in touch with Eastern European conductors
and orchestras. For one thing, a recording on Parliament, Crossroads, or World
Series often cost less than two dollars; and though the sound reproduction was
sometimes problematic, many of the performances were sensational. Vaclav Talich's
Zdenek Kosler's Dvorak Seventh, Karel Ancerl's Janacek Sinfonietta,
Vaclav Smetacek's Carmina Burana,
Janos Ferenscik's Beethoven Second and Fourth Symphonies remain, even after
all these years, among my most valued possessions.
Though I would later get to hear Bernstein,
Ormandy, Szell, and Munch in live performances, the Iron Curtain prevented many
talented performers from venturing to America, and I think only Ferenscik made
any appearances in the United States. And so the opportunity to hear some of
these conductors in live performances seemed too good to be true. And yet here
they are on Orchestral Concert CDs, a small but enterprising company. Recorded
between 1966 and 1968 in London's Royal Festival Hall (or, in the case of
Kosler, the Albert Hall, Nottingham), the "Virtual Concert Hall Series"
captures these important but nearly forgotten conductors giving their
wholehearted all on tour.
Of course, given that these are "historical" recordings, I did expect some compromises in the sound reproduction. Typically historical issues involve a trade-off: you get memorable performances, but often in mediocre sound. But here, I was very pleasantly surprised that such was definitely not the case. Singlehandedly recorded by Geoffrey Terry on two omnidirectional microphones, the sound is thrillingly detailed and transparent, with a wide dynamic range and a soundstage that's both broad and deep. The utter simplicity and honesty of the process reminds me of the renowned "Living Presence" recordings Robert Fine made for the Mercury label in the early days of stereo---recordings that sound as vivid today as they did then. The end result is a spatial realism that makes for some very exciting listening. There is no sense of historical distance here, nothing to distract a listener from experiencing these performances directly. And what performances they are!
The Shostakovitch Tenth has never wanted for superb recordings (Karajan, Sanderling, Petrenko), but Smetacek's performance belongs in a special category of its own: it is searing, bristling, and intense from first note to last. No performance does a better job of harnessing the bitterness, anger, and defiance of the work. There have also been many excellent recordings of the Dvorak Eighth Symphony, of which Kosler's is yet another. His buoyant, glad-hearted performance emphasizes the dance-like character of the music, its play of light and shade.
Had he decided to follow in the footsteps of his countrymen Fritz Reiner and Georg Solti, Janos Ferenscik might well have been remembered as one of the great 20th Century conductors. Instead he devoted his career to the musical life of his native Hungary. Not surprisingly, his Brahms turns out to be as magisterial as his Beethoven: a rugged, but beautifully proportioned interpretation making it all the more regrettable that it is the only example of his Brahms we have. Jiri Waldhans is a name new to me, but I found his Dvorak "New World" Symphony deeply satisfying. The performance is both direct and expressive, and avoids the overwrought, Teutonic pushing and pulling of so many modern recordings. Here the tempos are so natural and flowing, it's almost as if the music is playing itself. Waldhans brings out the warmth and lyricism of the score without in any way shortchanging the drama. The famous Largo is hymn-like, solemn, and tender, a performance straight from the heart.
The fillers are just as compelling. Frencsik's program begins with a powerful Egmont Overture, and also includes an exhilarating and idiomatic reading of Kodaly's ever-delightful Galanta Dances. The Rakoczy March makes for a fitting and rousing conclusion. Waldhans follows his Dvorak with some lovely Delius and the Philharmonic Dances of Jan Novak, a bright, percussive showpiece that deserves to be better known than it is. Kosler's Strauss is a known quantity, and this operatically shaped Death and Transfiguration can stand comparison with the very best.
Those budget records that first introduced me to these artists also taught me something else: the Czech Philharmonic is not the only talented orchestra in Eastern Europe. The Prague Symphony Orchestra and the Hungarian State Orchestra both play with a blend of tonal refinement, warmth, and edge-of-the-seat virtuosity. I'd never heard the Brno Philharmonic Orchestra before, but the humanity, commitment and musicality of their performances left me deeply impressed.
These recordings testify to the
high state of musical culture in Eastern Europe during this period and thus
preserve an important historical moment that might otherwise have been
forgotten. More importantly, they are uniformly memorable performances vividly
recorded. I recommend them one and all with unbridled enthusiasm.