Dvorak: Symphony No. 9 (CD review)
Jewish-Hungarian conductor Istvan Kertesz (1929-1973) died tragically young, drowned while swimming off the coast of Israel. But before his death, he recorded Dvorak's Ninth Symphony twice in stereo. The first time was the Decca recording we have here, made with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1961. The second time was just a few years later, in 1966, again with Decca but with the London Symphony. Why did he re-record it? Possibly because he was recording all nine of Dvorak's symphonies with the LSO and wanted continuity within the set. Possibly because he felt he had more to say on the subject. And possibly because he wanted to restore the first-movement repeat that he had omitted in the earlier recording.
Who knows? Whatever the case, Kertesz fans have been arguing ever since about which version they like best, the first, more youthful, more impetuous one under review or the second, more mature, more complete one. Moreover, there remains some disagreement among audiophiles about which recording sounds best from a purely sonic viewpoint: the earlier, more dynamic one or the later, more refined one.
The first time I heard Kertesz's Vienna rendering was in the late Sixties or early Seventies when an acquaintance bought a pair of Infinity Servo-Static I's, electrostatic/cone hybrids considered at the time to be one of the finest speaker systems in the world. The first thing the acquaintance put on the turntable was an LP of this recording by Kertesz and the VPO. I was stunned by the sound--the sonics of both the high-end playback system and the record.
Of course, I had to buy the album. (I would loved to have bought the Infinity speakers, too, but the price was astronomical). In any case, the album did not disappoint me, and even though I could only afford a pair of AR-3a's back then, the speakers brought out most everything good about the Kertesz/VPO sound. Then came the digital age in the early Eighties, and I moved on to the compact disc of the recording, which sorely disappointed me. It seemed edgier and to have lost much of its impact.
Which brings me to this High Definition Tape Transfers remastered version of the recording, made by HDTT in 2017. I'm happy to say that because HDTT transferred it from a Decca tape and did so with care, it sounds much as I remembered the old LP. Meaning it doesn't get any better, and it just might return to a lot of audiophile systems as a demonstration piece.
Anyway, let's start with a word about Kertesz's interpretation of the symphony. Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) wrote the work in 1893 while serving as director of the New York Conservatory. Many listeners over the years have heard instances of American idioms in the music, especially African-American spirituals and Native-American influences, but Dvorak said most of the music was original, probably inspired more by his native Bohemia than anything "American." The symphony's title, "From the New World," only came about because Dvorak happened to be living in New York at the time he wrote it. While to some degree local tunes may have influenced the composer, the music seems mostly Czech in flavor. At the very least, as Leonard Bernstein once remarked, one might consider it multinational.
In the first movement, Kertesz is both fervent and affectionate. While some listeners may miss the repeat, the abbreviated time here seems more suited to the conductor's urgent manner. Moreover, Kertesz is never reluctant to convey the work's Gypsy fire, and he closes the first movement in a thrilling blaze of passion.
The slow, quiet, second-movement Largo, with its famous cor anglais melody, sounds as sweetly fluid as any you'll find. Then Kertesz gives us an energetic reading of the Scherzo and ends the piece with a roaring good finale, full of excitement and good cheer. Maybe his LSO performance shows us a more unified, better constructed piece of music, but this earlier realization is undoubtedly the more enrapturing one.
For a coupling, the folks at HDTT provide another Czech work, The Bartered Bride Overture by Bedrich Smetana (1824–1884). This time, however, the conductor is Fritz Reiner, the orchestra is the Chicago Symphony, and the remaster is from an RCA "Living Stereo" recording. Reiner was also a fine interpreter of Czech and Hungarian music, and he provides a properly rustic and rousing rendition of the score.
Producer Ray Minshull and engineer James Brown recorded the Dvorak at the Sofiensaal, Vienna in 1961, and producer Richard Mohr and engineer Robert Layton recorded the Smetana in Chicago, 1955. HDTT transferred both works from 15-ips tapes to DSD (Direct Stream Digital) 256.
The remastering restores the sound of the Dvorak, as I said, to much as I remembered it from the old LP days. It's very dynamic, with a solid impact, helped all the more by its excellent definition. Some listeners might object to the timpani being rather closely miked, but it helps to bring out all the fire and warmth of the work. The stereo spread is broad, and the resonance is just enough to impart a realistic feeling for the hall. In the Smetana overture, the sound is even broader across the speakers and perhaps a trifle thinner and brighter as well.
Even after all these years, the Dvorak recording remains a standout audiophile choice, and both the sound and the performance must command a place among the top recommendations for this work.
For further information on HDTT products, prices, discs, and downloads in a variety of formats, you can visit their Web site at http://www.highdeftapetransfers.com/.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow:
William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer
Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.
The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.