Dvorak: Symphony No. 8 in G; Symphonic Variations

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COMPOSERS: Dvorak
LABELS: EMI Eminence
WORKS: Symphony No. 8 in G; Symphonic Variations
PERFORMER: London Philharmonic/Charles Mackerras
CATALOGUE NO: CDEMX 2216 DDD

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Approaches to Dvorák’s Eighth vary to a greater extent than with any of his other symphonies. The work’s experimental character and colourful nature seem to prompt a greater range of performing styles. In some ways, two of the performances under consideration here occupy opposite poles in the interpretative stakes. On the one hand we have Ozawa, engagingly searching out a meaning in every one of the composer’s abundant melodic lines in a performance with a strong sense of the programmatic. At the other extreme is Charles Mackerras in a squeakily clean performance; attention to detail in phrasing and tempo is scrupulous and at every stage the composer’s score is allowed to speak for itself. Although recorded at a concert, Ozawa’s orchestra acquits itself, apart from the odd imperfection, splendidly. My main worry, however, is that the overly Romantic treatment of some lines (notably in the first and third movements) will soon become cloying. Although Mackerras does not over-characterise, the national qualities in the work shine through at every stage. This is a respectful performance which manages to be both instructive and captivating. Complemented by a fine performance of the Symphonic Variations, Mackerras’s version of the symphony could well become a standard recommendation. Sadly, the two budget recordings are not in the same class as Ozawa, let alone Mackerras. The BRTN Philharmonic Orchestra sounds strained at times and the recording is strangely distant; Alexander Rahbari has a straightforward view of the work, but scuppers the whole with a fast, featureless reading of the charming Allegretto grazioso. Iván Fischer is marginally preferable despite what sounds like an extra trumpet playing an octave lower than the solo at the start of the finale, but on the whole there is precious little brilliance or insight in his reading. Jan Smaczny