Dvorák: Symphony No. 8; Symphonic Variations

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WORKS: Symphony No. 8; Symphonic Variations
PERFORMER: LPO/Charles Mackerras


Sir Charles Mackerras built his reputation as the foremost Czech musical specialist of our time on classic performances of Janáˇcek’s operas, but he was also a formidable Dvoπákian. In a sequence of landmark recordings, primarily of the later Dvoπák Symphonies and symphonic poems, he left a definitive contribution to the recorded history of the composer’s orchestral music. Mackerras’s interpretations were always based on a detailed reading of the score, a superb control of orchestral balance and, where appropriate, a strong sense of dramatic narrative, which is a crucial factor in getting the best out of Dvoπák’s Eighth Symphony.

These two live performances date from 1992. Mackerras’s reading of the Symphonic Variations would stand up well to any competition including his own recording recently released on Supraphon (reviewed May 2010). In the wrong hands these 27 variations can seem bitty. Mackerras underlines the bigger picture with flawless handling of the tempo relationships and by building  a powerful sense of expectation in the approach to the fugal finale. The performance of the Eighth Symphony, though exciting in parts, is not as complete an experience.


The first movement is wonderfully buoyant although some might find the timpani and brass playing a little on the aggressive side. The slow movement unfolds persuasively, but the Allegretto grazioso has some curiously self-indulgent portamento and parts of the finale seem a touch abrupt. While the performance of the Symphonic Variations measures up to the best, that of the Symphony falls below Mackerras’s own accounts with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Jan Smaczny