Dvorak: Symphony No. 2 (CD review)

Also, three Slavonic Dances. Jose Serebrier, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Warner Classics 2564 64527-6.

Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) wrote nine symphonies, but it seems as though only the final three get any real love, at least insofar as recordings go. The few recordings of the Second Symphony we find usually come in complete sets because it’s really too long to couple with another Dvorak symphony on a single disc, and it’s not popular enough to sell a lot of single discs. Still, that isn’t stopping veteran conductor Jose Serebrier from continuing his march through the complete Dvorak symphonies, the current album being the fourth volume in the series. Nevertheless, because there aren’t a lot of single-disc performances of the Second, especially new digital ones, Serebrier almost has the field to himself. It doesn’t matter; his interpretation with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra would no doubt hold up reasonably well no matter how crowded the field.

Dvorak wrote the Symphony No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 4 in 1865, but he was so poor at the time he couldn’t even afford to have it bound. It finally premiered in 1888, getting all of one performance during the composer’s lifetime; not exactly an auspicious start for the young Dvorak or his second symphonic work. Fortunately, that doesn’t stop Maestro Serebrier from giving it his all.

The Second Symphony is a fairly light work, lyrical, bucolic, and agreeable. That’s the way Serebrier approaches it, with a strong, lively spirit yet with good humor and a pastoral outlook as well. The conductor maintains moderately quick tempos throughout, giving the piece a peppy yet easygoing amiability. The Second is essentially a cheerful, often gentle work, and Serebrier keeps it that way.

The symphony begins with a lengthy introduction, followed by a moderately more aggressive tune, an exposition, recapitulation, and coda, all in pretty much an Allegro con moto tempo as Dvorak indicates. Throughout this fifteen-minute movement, Serebrier and the Bournemouth players sound elegant and refined, even though he moves things along at a moderately rapid gait. The music may not be entirely memorable, but the conductor handles it in a fluid, fluent manner that makes it quite easy to take.

Under Serebrier the second-movement Adagio is peaceful and serene, a quiet tranquility pervading the scene, tinged with a touch of romantic melancholy. Next, we get what by Dvorak’s standards is an extra-long Scherzo, in which Serebrier finds suitable joy handling the varied and abundant themes.

Then comes a finale of great exuberance and even greater extravagance, the various melodies practically falling over one another. Here, Serebrier seems a bit more hesitant than in the previous sections of the symphonies. It's trifling, but he does appear to slow the pace a tad, at least in places, rather starting and stopping more than necessary. In any case, no harm done, and the conductor takes the music out on a grand, broad, Tchaikovsky-like sweep. Neither the symphony nor Serebrier's reading of it will probably win any awards, but it is doubtless satisfying and certainly more than competent.

Coupled with the symphony we find three of Dvorak's Slavonic Dances from 1878 and 1886: Nos. 3 and 6 from Op. 46 and No. 7 from Op. 72. They are brief, about three to five minutes apiece, and they demonstrate the composer's later, more concise, more familiar style, with which he won his first international success. If Serebrier loses a little something in the way of rustic charm, he does give the music a lovely, effortless appeal, and they do, in fact, surpass the Symphony No. 2 in almost every way despite their brevity. Indeed, it may be their very conciseness that makes the Dances so delightful, filled as they are with lilting, high-spirited good will.

Warner Classics producer Alexander van Ingen and engineers Mike Hatch and Mike Cox recorded the music at the Lighthouse concert hall, Poole, England in 2013. Very nicely recorded, too, spacious and open, and very, very smooth. It's a tad close for my liking, but it's not distracting; it just decreases somewhat the sense of depth and dimensionality in the music. Dynamics, impact, and frequency extensions in the bass and treble are adequate, though not outstanding, and midrange definition is fine. The recording may not rank in the upper echelons of audiophile perfection, but like the performances it is easy on the ear and quite pleasant.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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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.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa