Dvorak: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 2; Symphony No. 3; Symphony No. 4; Symphony No. 5; Symphony No. 6; Symphony No. 7; Symphony No. 8; Symphony No. 9

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COMPOSERS: Dvorak
LABELS: Supraphon
WORKS: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 2; Symphony No. 3; Symphony No. 4; Symphony No. 5; Symphony No. 6; Symphony No. 7; Symphony No. 8; Symphony No. 9
PERFORMER: Czech PO/Václav Neumann
CATALOGUE NO: SU 3703-2, SU 3704-2, SU 3705-2 Reissue (1989-91)
If not in the same league as Talich or Sejna, Václav Neumann was unquestionably a distinguished conductor of the Czech Philharmonic. In truth, his greatest strengths did not lie in the Romantic Czech repertoire, but, like another of his predecessors, Karel Anžerl, with 20th-century composers, in particular Martinu; his recordings, mostly from the late Seventies, of the Martinu symphonies are a fine achievement and remain one of the most recommendable complete sets of those works.

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His complete set of the Dvorák symphonies has some very good things in it, including a thoughtful version of the unfairly neglected Third, but none of the performances is truly outstanding. Neumann is at his best in the scherzo movements from No. 5 onwards: the third movement of No. 7 has a wonderfully infectious bounce and that of No. 8 has a delightfully limpid quality that often eludes performers.

Less convincing are the movements that plumb greater emotional depth. In the slow movement of the Seventh, for example, Neumann’s tendency to dwell on detail damages the shape of the whole. The first movement of the Sixth fatally lacks the sense of unfolding that marks the greatest performances of this work, though his decision to omit the exposition repeat has the composer’s sanction. In many other fast movements there is a tendency to focus on accompaniment at the expense of line and the broader picture. While the later symphonies don’t need special pleading, the first two, in particular, need very careful treatment if they are not to appear hectoring and overblown. The finale of the Second in Neumann’s reading critically lacks energy, and nowhere does he show Kertész’s evident sympathy for Dvorák’s youthful expansiveness.

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The recordings, made in the Eighties, lack vibrancy and occasionally favour an unrealistic balance. The decision to split the linked inner movements of the Fifth Symphony over two CDs is thoughtless, though Jarmil Burghauser’s stimulating notes are a plus. While the readings of the Third and Eighth Symphonies are worth returning to, there is little else in the set that really stands out and certainly nothing to compare with Kertész’s endlessly listenable complete recording on Decca.