Monday, October 24, 2011

Dvorak: Symphony No.6, The Golden Spinning-Wheel - Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Mackerras

Antonin Dvorak
Symphony No.6, The Golden Spinning-Wheel
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Charles Mackerras
Supraphon- SU 3771-2 031(CD)

Classics Today Rating: 10/10

In his equally laudatory review of this fantastic new release, my colleague Christophe Huss salutes Supraphon for managing to remain true to its dedication to Czech music while at the same time upholding the highest standards of performance quality. To this observation I can only add "Amen!" The label already has a couple of noteworthy versions of Dvorák's luminous Sixth Symphony with the incomparable (in this music anyway) Czech Philharmonic--a very good one by Neumann and a classic account by Ancerl. In fact, this symphony has been very well-served on disc, with excellent recordings by Kubelik, Rowicki, and Suitner, to name three of the best that come immediately to mind. Nevertheless, this newcomer bids fair to move right to the top of the available discography.

Recorded live, the rapport in evidence between Charles Mackerras and the orchestra really is the stuff of legends. There are so many outstanding moments that it's hard to settle on just a few, but consider the fortissimo counterstatement of the opening tune, just a touch "pesante" for added emphasis, or the gorgeously natural rubato between phrases of the same movement's second subject, and the way the coda really takes off and builds in energy straight through to the final climax. Then there's the usual gorgeous wind playing from the orchestra, so evident in the Adagio. Mackerras drives the scherzo with exhilarating abandon, and although he never bears down on the rhythm too heavily (always maintaining the lilt of the dance), the clarity of texture allows such characterful touches as the offbeat timpani in the reprise to register with full impact. I also love the extra punch he brings to the principal section's return after the trio.

Best of all, Mackerras treats us to what must be the most thrilling account of the finale yet captured on disc. It takes off like the wind and never looks back, simply accumulating energy as it goes. The great string fugato that initiates the coda flies by as if on mighty wings, and the grandiosity of the closing pages never loses that vital rhythmic impulse that gives the music its inner life. I wish that Supraphon had not included the applause at the end, but when you consider that all of this, and so much else besides, is happening in real time you will understand that anyone who believes that the era of "great" conductors is past simply hasn't been listening. If this sort of artistic communion between conductor and orchestra in the service of a brilliant interpretation isn't greatness, then we need to ask whether the term has any meaning at all.

The Golden Spinning Wheel (a studio recording this time) also receives what is arguably its finest performance on disc, even considering Harnoncourt's outstanding recent version. The opening, usually a blur of muddy rhythms in the lower strings and indifferently played percussion, here sounds as crisp and clean as a spring morning. I have never understood why some performances cut the central episode wherein the holy hermit gets back the heroine's various body parts (so he can patch her together again) in exchange for the components of the golden spinning wheel. The threefold musical repetition is not literal, and the orchestration is enchanting. The section is, in effect, the slow movement following the scherzo in which poor Dornicka gets hacked to bits in the first place, and it's a necessary four minutes of contrast. Finally, this is the moment where we encounter most of the "spinning wheel" music of the title. Mackerras rightly doesn't delete it, and hearing those deliciously chubby brass chorales and lovely wind solos alongside such characterful phrasing, you can't imagine why anyone would. The last few minutes offer as pure an expression of joy as you'll ever hear.

Supraphon's engineering is outstanding in both works, a touch warmer in the symphony (perhaps as a result of the presence of an audience), but in all respects as fine as any from this source. That audience, by the way, is absolutely silent, and with music-making of such spellbinding quality going on it's no wonder. Coming hard on the heels of his sensational Janácek double CD a few months ago, it's clear that Mackerras' Supraphon recordings will comprise a small but outstanding legacy worthy to stand beside the great recordings of such legends as Talich or Ancerl, and that the great Czech tradition is very much alive both in Prague and at Supraphon. Buy a few of these: they make terrific gifts for special occasions, and you can be sure to get a hearty "Thank you!" from the lucky objects of your affection. But first, treat yourself. [6/11/2004]

--David Hurwitz

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