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The best recordings of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8

Dvořák’s lively Eighth Symphony flew off the page in more ways than one, says Terry Williams, as he gives his spotter’s guide to the best recordings

Dvořák's Symphony No. 8 best recording

Dvořák was in his late-40s when he conducted the premiere of his Eighth Symphony. By this stage, he had already composed a large body of music, including the Slavonic Dances and Symphonic Variations for orchestra, 11 string quartets and his 1879 String Sextet, which was his first work to be premiered outside Bohemia.  Many of the works for which he is best known today, however, were still to be written, including the opera Rusalka, his Cello Concerto and, inspired by his three-year stay in the US from 1892, his ‘New World’ Symphony and the ‘American’ String Quartet No. 12.

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Excellent recordings of Dvořák’s Eighth are not in short supply. Václav Talich’s pioneering 1935 recording is essential listening, now beautifully restored on the Koch label. It remained the benchmark for many years, a testament to the unique quality of the pre-war Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. As part of complete sets of the nine symphonies, meanwhile, István Kertész and Witold Rowicki’s recordings with the LSO in the 1960s and ’70s (Decca and Philips) are both memorable achievements.

Also with the LSO is Antal Doráti’s blistering 1959 account (Mercury Living Presence) – a thrilling if uncomfortable ride – as is the second of Colin Davis’s two very fine recordings (LSO Live, 1999); his first, from 1978, is with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (Philips) . For a combination of fine recorded sound and performance, Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra (Channel Classics) is also a firm recommendation.

If you are one of those fortunate to own Karel Ančerl’s currently unavailable live 1970 Concertgebouw recording you have already struck gold. However, there is gold aplenty to be discovered in Charles Mackerras’s equally inspired realisation of Dvořák’s score. Like Ančerl and Rafael Kubelík, Mackerras learned much of his craft at the feet of Václav Talich, and no other non-Czech musician has done more to raise the international profile of Czech music – his championship of the operas of Janáček is legendary. It’s all the more puzzling, therefore, why he recorded only four of the Dvořák symphonies, and not a complete set.

What’s the best recording of Dvořák‘s Symphony No. 8?

Charles Mackerras (conductor)

Prague Symphony Orchestra

Supraphon SU38482

Dvořák's Symphony No. 8 best recording

Of all the recordings of the Eighth that I’ve heard, it is this live one from 2005 which manages to achieve the ideal balance of sunshine and darkness. It’s a characteristic of Czech music that joy and sadness go hand in hand, and it’s that which is perfectly delivered here in a performance that is also beautifully paced and phrased. All the players of the Prague Symphony Orchestra cover themselves in glory, but it is the distinctive voices of the orchestra’s wind section which are  a special delight.

Mackerras and his Czech pals know how to party, too – the final mad rush to the finish, with its whooping high horns, is exhilaration itself, no doubt bringing the Prague audience to its feet. Sound quality is typical of the Supraphon label’s best, offering a believable concert hall perspective and a warm ambient glow

Three other great recordings of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8

Claudio Abbado (conductor)

Sony SK64303

Dvořák's Symphony No. 8 Claudio Abbado

Claudio Abbado is not necessarily the first name to come to mind where Dvořák is concerned. However, the Italian’s live 1995 recording of the Eighth stands out for its open-air quality and sense of adventure. The Allegretto grazioso third movement, perhaps the most difficult of the four to bring off successfully, has the feel of a Bohemian dance which somehow eludes many conductors. The Berlin Philharmonic is at its virtuosic best throughout and Sony’s engineers have done a fine job, too. 

István Kertész (conductor)

Decca 475 7517

Dvořák's Symphony No. 8 István Kertész

The Hungarian conductor István Kertész, who died tragically young in a drowning accident at 43, is best remembered today for the first complete recordings of all the Dvořák symphonies. The Eighth paved the way, after Decca’s producer Ray Minshull had heard him conduct it in concert – was Kertész happy to record the Dvořák instead of a scheduled Elgar First? He was. Apart from some over-brightness in the violins, this 1963 version still sounds well and, while subtlety is not its strongest suit, it is nonetheless one of the freshest and most direct accounts around.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt (conductor)

Warner Classics 3984244872

Nikolaus Harnoncourt Dvořák's Symphony No. 8

Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra certainly knows its Dvořák. On this evidence, each player can claim honorary Czech status, as can the conductor too. With Harnonourt’s reputation for controversy and sometimes sheer bloody-mindedness, one might not be prepared for such an enjoyable and trouble-free ride through the Czech countryside. One might perhaps question the slow tempo for the opening and a rushed one for the virtuoso flute variations in the Finale but, recorded live in 1998 with fine sound, this is a strong contender. 

And one to avoid…

Unfortunately, not even the Royal Concertgebouw’s legendarily ravishing tone can relieve the torpor of Carlo Maria Giulini’s 1990 account. Though scoring high marks for loving detail, the Italian’s approach nonetheless rates desperately low on vitality – in the ‘fast’ sections, the players barely break into a sweat. Whilst undeniably beautiful throughout, it’s all too autumnal for my taste.

We named Dvořák the 14th greatest composer ever

Read more reviews of the latest Dvořák recordings here

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Find out more about Dvořák and his works here