There are symphonies that present unique and sometimes daunting challenges to would-be interpreters. The Brahms Third, for example, has defeated the best efforts of some great conductors---Toscanini, Furtwangler, and Reiner among them. But the Dvorak Sixth? What could be more straightforward than Dvorak's sunniest, perkiest symphonic work? As one critic put it, "the cheerful nature of the Sixth, untouched by even a hint of melancholy, is perfectly matched by its uncomplicated structure." What could be simpler, right? Wrong! For reasons that remain (to me at least) mysterious, the work has resisted the advances of some very talented conductors: Ancerl, Belohlavek, Davis, Kubelik, Neumann, Mackerras---and that's not a complete list either. In fact mid-level conductors (Alsop, Chung, Kreizberg) have had better luck with it, producing acceptable if not especially memorable performances. There are two great recordings, however, both from the 1960's, and both with the London Symphony: Istvan Kertez and Witold Rowicki. Kertez is warmer, a shade more leisurely; Rowicki more electric, swaggering; but there's not a doubt that both conductors have the full measure of the work. Alas, in the forty or so years since those recordings were made, there have yet to be even one performance to match them. In fact we're still awaiting a great modern recording.
In spite of some very positive reviews, the young American conductor James Gaffigan's new release with the Switzerland's oldest orchestra counts as yet another disappointment. One critic characterized this performance as "light, transparent, and genial." And that's true enough, as far as it goes. Gaffigan, who won the Georg Solti International Conducting Competition in 2004, presents the symphony in soft-focus and without any rough edges. He does a commendable job at pointing details, drawing out inner voices, untangling thick-sounding orchestral passages. Throughout he emphasizes the lyrical nature of the work; he's sometimes beguiling and charming (as in the Adagio). But too often his interpretation lacks the animating spirit of folk music that so infuses the scores Dvorak composed during a period that also included the first set of Slavonic Dances. What's missing here and so evident in the recordings by Kertez and Rowicki is the unruly spontaneity of the dance. The scherzo (a "furiant") is just about the liveliest music Dvorak ever produced, but Gaffigan's approach is generalized, uninflected, so much note-spinning. The problem with this recording is not that it's too genial, but that it's too genteel. If ever a performance needed more rough edges it's this one.
The Lucerne Symphony Orchestra is better than most provincial bands, but not by much. The strings are thin-sounding, and the brass has no bite. The very clinical recording doesn't help much. We do hear everything, but at the expense of the warmth that might well have served as a saving grace. Gaffigan's talent seems better suited to the American Suite, a truly charming work, but not from the composer's top drawer.
There's a tiresome game we critics sometimes play: beating up on a new recording in favor of some favorite from the past (typically no longer available). Be that as it may, the choice here is a no-brainer. If you're interested in this symphony (and why shouldn't you be?), seek out the still very much available Istvan Ketrez on London: it's a truly great performance in sound that has the immediacy and warmth the present disc so sorely lacks. And it comes with a substantial bonus: an incandescent version of the Scherzo Capriccioso, one of Dvorak's most joyous compositions.