Dvorak sym6 SBK60295

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)
Symphony No. 6 in D major, Op. 60
Scherzo capriccioso, Op. 66*
Philharmonia Orchestra/Andrew Davis
Suite in A major for Orchestra, Op. 98b ‘American’
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Michael Tilson Thomas
rec. 1976 Philharmonie, Berlin (Op. 98b); 1979 (Op. 60) & 1981 (Op. 66), EMI Studio One, London. ADD/DDD*
Presto CD
SONY SBK60295 [78]

Like all reviewers, I am prone to personal quirks and tastes, and one of those is an emotional attachment to both the Sony “Essential Classics” label, having learned so much great music in so many equally great performances from its catalogue, and to Dvořák’s Sixth Symphony, preferring it even over his last three symphonic masterpieces – and my delight in it starts with that magical opening, the mood of which Andrew Davis and the Philharmonia capture so successfully: superficially relaxed but with an underlying sense of tension and expectation.

Except for the Scherzo, which is taken at an exhilarating lick, Davis’ timings are on the leisurely side compared with versions by Kertesz, Neumann and – my favourite – Suitner, and just occasionally I would like to hear a little more urgency injected into to those folk rhythms – but is a pleasure to hear this music played so carefully and affectionately, with enough time taken to mould phrases tellingly. The acoustic of the EMI studio recording location is a little flat and dry, too, and even though both Suitner and Kertesz were also recorded in analogue, their accounts have more impact and immediacy, while Neumann’s second recording has the additional advantage of digital sound. I don’t want to make too much of that, in that there are still many lovely moments here, such as in the build-up half way through the first movement to the reprise of that lilting opening subject, the crescendo culminating in a splendid climax at 7:41, and equally stirring are the final two minutes before the dwindling coda, which reminds me of the end of his equally patriotic coeval Smetana’s Vltava – although Dvořák was unlikely to have known it, as Má vlast premiered in 1882 and his Sixth Symphony was in 1881.

The Adagio is daringly slow but Davis sustains the line without sagging and the orchestral playing is heavenly. I have already mentioned the driven Scherzo, in which the trio is a little oasis of calm. The finale Is not Dvořák’s best but it’s very lively and given the best advocacy by some virtuosic playing from the Philharmonia, especially in the race to the finishing line, which is thrilling.

The Scherzo capriccioso – written for a tour to England – is a charming little jeu d’esprit in waltz time but more of a rhapsody, really, injected with little spurts of Bohemian fire, and played here with both delicacy and zest, embracing the panoply of moods and colours which this very loose confection displays.

As the notes suggest, there is nothing especially American about the ‘American’ Suite beyond the fact that Dvořák wrote it in America; in fact, he spent much of his time visiting immigrant Czech and Moravian communities, no doubt hearing music which stimulated nostalgic sentiment and patriotic fervour, hence its folksy character. I was unfamiliar with this music before listening to this recording. I cannot say that it is the most striking of Dvořák’s works; it is, in essence, “Dvořák light” and not as catchy as the earlier two sets of Slavonic Dances but certainly given ideal advocacy here by the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra here under Michael Tilson Thomas – there is nothing “Germanic” about their rendition. The sound here is rather more vivid than that given to the symphony, being from a different location and by a different team.

Ralph Moore

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