It is pretty hard for a new version of these well traveled and oft-recorded symphonies to stand out from the pack, especially if the conductor and orchestra are unfamiliar. Ivan Fischer and his Budapest players are relatively unknown in the U.S., although more recognized in Europe. In my opinion, Fischer is the finest Bartok conductor active today. His Philips CDs of that composer's Concerto for Orchestra and The Miraculous Mandarin capture their expressionistic energy and sardonic wit more fully than even such icons as Reiner and Dorati. (No need to start sticking pins into the Wayne doll; I love those guys' Bartok too, but the Fischer CDs really are something special.
Although the countries lie close together in Eastern Europe, the late-romantic Bohemian culture of Dvorak is far different from that of the 20th-century Hungarian Bartok. But those differences pose no problem for these musicians. Their warm, passionate performances are exceptionally satisfying.
As with his Bartok, Fischer here displays a genius for subtle tempo modulations and illumination of expressive detail. My LP copies of these two symphonies occupy about four inches of shelf space, not to mention the 10 or so CDs devoted to them. You might say I'm a pretty devoted Dvorak fan. Fischer brings out qualities in the music that can still surprise me even after repeated hearings.
Two years ago at Ravinia (the outdoor summer venue of the Chicago Symphony), I heard Fischer lead the most exciting Dvorak 8th I've ever heard. Riding home afterwards with an old friend who has played in the CSO for nearly 30 years, I listened with amusement as he complained. Fischer, it seems, wasn't content to just let them play a piece that they already knew perfectly, but insisted on their trying all sorts of new phrasings. That might be OK, he said, during the winter when there was plenty of rehearsal time, but not when they had only one rehearsal for the performance. In fact, he had worked them so hard on the first two movements that they didn't even have time to go over the last two. Now of course, being the Chicago Symphony, they nonetheless gave a brilliant performance. When I began listening to this CD, I immediately thought of that evening. Fischer wasn't interested in a routinely competent performance; he wanted something unique . And that's the same impression I get with these interpretations.
The orchestral playing deserves some commentary. It has always seemed to me that Eastern European orchestras, which for decades were isolated behind the Iron Curtain, have maintained their traditional sonorities and playing styles, whereas orchestras in the West have tended to evolve toward a more "international," less idiomatic way of playing. That's not to say, of course, that great ensembles such as the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics are not distinctive; of course they are. But no other orchestra sounds like the Czech Philharmonic, with its distinctively rounded, burnished brass and deeply warm, rich strings. And I don't recall another orchestra that sounds like these Budapest players either. Their brass, especially the trumpets, have a highly distinctive attack, and the strings combine flawless ensemble with a startling degree of expressive subtlety. The overall effect merges remarkable transparency and emotional commitment.
The recorded sound is pretty good, but nowhere near state-of-the-art. Most important to me is that the engineering allows me to hear everything that is going on. I might wish for a bit more dynamic range and extension -- but I would urge you not to pass on this disc because of sonics. This CD is equally recommendable to the experienced Dvorak lover, who will find many new insights from these warhorses, and the newcomer who just wants to enjoy the music.