Dvorak: Symphonies 7&8
The five years between the premieres of Dvoπák’s Seventh and Eighth symphonies witnessed a near sea change in his approach to composition. The Seventh, commissioned by the Philharmonic Society of London, was consciously moulded in the traditions of Viennese Classicism, although this did not prevent Dvorák adopting some decidedly modernist harmonic colouring.
The Eighth Symphony, premiered on 2 January 1890, is quite different. The first movement is one of his most experimental with its multitude of ideas linked by rhythmic rather than melodic features. Brahms was happy to sit in a box with Dvorák at its first outing in Vienna, but he found the work puzzling and inconsistent.
The listening public, however, found its intoxicating lyricism and open-hearted mode of address instantly appealing, making it since its premiere, alongside the New World Symphony and the B minor Cello Concerto, one of Dvoπák’s most popular orchestral works.
In a sense, these two sets of recordings of the symphonies are not in direct competition. Musica Florea is a highly successful period instrument orchestra whose young conductor, Marek Stryncl, already has an enviable track record in 17th- and 18th-century works; Sir Charles Mackerras needs no introduction as one of the premiere interpreters of Czech repertoire today.
The overwhelming reason for investing in Stryncl’s performance is the orchestral sonority, notably in the wind and brass playing, excellently captured in a vivid recording. Unfortunately, there are some interpretative problems: tempos in the Seventh Symphony are erratic, with a tendency to race at some crescendos, and there is a marked lack of rhythmic nuance, most damagingly at the start of the scherzo.
In general terms, the performance of the Symphonic Variations which accompanies that Symphony on the first disc is more successful. Stryncl’s volatile approach suits the first movement of the Eighth Symphony better and the mood swings of the Adagio are nicely captured.
The Allegretto grazioso is overly mannered, but there is much to recommend this recording, not least for the fascinating orchestral sound. Mackerras is more authoritative in both symphonies. His approach in the Seventh might almost be described as operatic, with a clear focus on dramatic detail.
There is a huge amount to enjoy here, particularly in the finale which is one of the most persuasive performances I’ve heard on record, with a fascinating approach to its opening bars. Although this is a performance to treasure from many points of view, there are one or two awkward edges, not least in the approach to the secondary material in the first movement.
The Eighth Symphony fares even better, with an infectious reading of the first movement and depth in the Adagio; very well recorded, this handsome performance is one of the finest now available. Jan Smaczny