Pilsen is one of the biggest cities in the Czech Republic. The Pilsen Philharmonic, which traces its origins to the nineteenth century, is one of the oldest orchestras in the Czech Republic. Maestro Tomas Brauner, one of the world's foremost young conductors, was born in Prague, Czech Republic. I mention all of this because the subjects of the present album are the orchestral rhapsodies of Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904), probably the most famous Czech composer of all time. What could be more appropriate than a Czech orchestra and a Czech conductor recording Czech music in a Czech studio?
Dvorak was proudly nationalistic, often using Czech folk influences in his music, particularly in matters of rhythm. Certainly, the composer's style appears no more explicitly than in his rhapsodies, for which Maestro Brauner seems to have a strong affinity. And, I might add, the Pilsen Philharmonic follow his lead commendably. It appears that not only does the city of Pilsen make a celebrated Pilsner beer, they have a fine orchestra, too.
Now, to the music at hand: The Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music, the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, and Wikipedia all agree that a rhapsody is a single-movement, instrumental composition irregular in form, episodic yet integrated and suggestive of improvisation or spontaneity. A rhapsody generally appears as a free-flowing work that uses a range of moods, colors, and tones to evoke a feeling of epic, heroic, or national character. Dvorak wrote four of them.
Brauner presents the rhapsodies in their order of composition, starting with the Rhapsody in A minor, Op. 14, B44, written in 1874. According to a booklet note, it was the tone poem meditations of Franz Liszt that most influenced Dvorak to write the piece, combining the dramatic, melodic ideas of his homeland with the tone painting of Liszt. He even called it a "Symphonic Poem in A minor." However, the composer did not feel the work worthy of performance, so it was not until he died that the public finally heard it.
The Rhapsody itself sounds a bit disconnected at times, which may be part of the reason Dvorak refused to allow performances of it. Despite this tendency, however, the work also displays an abundance of attractive melodies, maybe too many, all of them affectionately presented by Maestro Brauner, who does his best to make the contrasting elements come together.
Rhapsodies 2 and 3 are more theatrical, more striking musically, especially No. 2, than No. 1, with No. 3 being a sort of cross between the first two and sounding more than ever like Smetana. Whatever, I appreciated Brauner's rhythmic yet highly lyrical approach to the music. It may be relatively lightweight material, but Brauner makes it a worthwhile listen.
Recording director Sylva Stejskalova and engineers Vaclav Roubal and Karel Soukenik made the album at the studio of the Czech Radio Pilsen in 2013. There is a moderate degree of room ambience present, a resonance that enhances the believability of the sound. There is also a fair degree of transparency, air, space, depth, and solid deep bass involved. However, a frequency response that tends slightly to favor the upper midrange somewhat offsets these otherwise excellent qualities, making the sonics a tad top-heavy. Nevertheless, it's good sound overall, clean, clear, and reasonably natural.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: