Dvorak: Symphonies 7, 8 & 9 (CD review)

Also, American Suite. Libor Pesek, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Virgin Classics 50999 22039 2 (two-disc set).

Thank heaven for reissues. It's pretty hard to keep up with new recordings, even today when the number of new classical releases has dwindled quite a lot. But in the Seventies and Eighties, it was almost impossible to listen to everything that came out. So, these Dvorak symphonies from conductor Libor Pesek sailed right by me. Indeed, I'd never even known about them until this budget-priced set came along. More's the pity for me, too, because I've missed out all these years. Fortunately, it's never too late.

For some time I've been recommending Colin Davis's Concertgebouw set of Dvorak's last three and most-famous symphonies on a mid-price Philips Duo, at least for buyers interested in all three symphonies at a low price. Good sound and good performances, hard to beat. Until now. At just over half the cost, this Virgin set from 1988-89 must currently take pride of place. Not only are Pesek's performances as good or better than Davis's, the sound is more dynamic and transparent.

Critics often consider Dvorak's Symphony No. 7 his darkest work, which is not quite how Pesek handles it. Pesek presents it as more bucolic and folk-inflected than most other conductors' interpretations, and for me at least, it works. Truth be told, I've never really cared overmuch for the Seventh, until now, and Pesek has made me a believer. The Symphony No. 8 is, of course, Dvorak's most pastoral, most melodic, most cheerful symphony, usually performed as a direct contrast to No. 7. Yet here, Pesek points up the similarities, while still maintaining the piece's inherently joyous spirit.  It is a delight.  Which brings us to No. 9, "From the New World," where Pesek's relaxed manner is perhaps a touch wanting in pure adrenaline. I'd like to have heard greater spark and spontaneity, but, then, I'm used to Kertesz's celebrated LSO version (Decca), and hardly anything stands up to that.

The sound the Virgin engineers afforded Pesek and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic stands up well by any standards. It is a tad forward and edgy in the upper strings, true, but only on occasion, and it could have done with a bit more deep bass. Otherwise, it has fine depth and breadth and an enormously wide dynamic range. By comparison, the Concertgebouw under Davis seems overly warm and a touch veiled.

Buying separate discs with different conductors continues to be a person's best bet in building a classical library, and in this repertoire you'll find a number of worthwhile contenders. Still, most people reading this review probably already have favorites in their collection and are interested in alternative interpretative viewpoints. For all three final symphonies at a bargain price, Pesek is hard to beat, whether you're just beginning a library or you're an avid collector.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to pucciojj@recycle.bin.

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa