José Serebrier, cond; Bournemouth SO
WARNER 0190296238819 (7 CDs: 515:15)
The symphonies of Antonín Dvořák are always worth revisiting. That is the view at Warner Records anyway, as the recordings in this box set have been released multiple times over the last decade. The sessions, in Poole, Dorset, took place 2011–2014, and each of the seven discs was released separately over that period. A box set followed in 2015 (0825646132010). Here we have a reissue of that box, with a different cover and catalog number, but no other obvious changes. A trawl of streaming platforms shows different availability in different regions, but the individual discs have general distribution, whatever the status of the various boxes.
The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra is on good form here, but there is no getting around the fact that it is clearly a regional ensemble. The orchestra has recorded much, and its best recordings show that the players always respond well to inspiring leadership. José Serebrier fits that category. He is a brisk, dynamic conductor, who brings a sense of propulsion to all of Dvořák’s many dances. But he is sometimes limited by the scope of the orchestra’s sound. The string tone lacks weight, and the violins sometimes struggle with tuning in the loud upper register passages, as in the development of the Eighth Symphony first movement. The brass could do with more heft as well. Serebrier draws punchy accents from the trumpets and trombones, but in more sustained passages the tone begins to wane. The recording quality is generally good, but some corners of the orchestra feel distant. The timpani could do with more presence, as could the piccolo. No further complaints about the woodwind section though, nor the horns, whose stentorian tone bolsters every climax.
And the cycle begins with that imposing horn sound, with the opening of the First Symphony. The greatest pleasure that a cycle of Dvořák symphonies affords is the chance to return to this frustratingly neglected work. Serebrier clearly agrees, and he puts his heart and soul into this account. The conductor’s own liner note (presumably abridged from those of the individual issues) relates how he went to great lengths to sort out textual issues in the finale. Apparently, there are some suspicious dissonances that seem accidental. Serebrier went back to previous recordings, to see what they did, and then came up with his own solution, which also draws on a recent scholarly edition of the score. Importantly, this is only the third ever complete recording of the symphony. Just as importantly, Serebrier’s survey brought him in contact with the superlative Kertész account, which he aims to match in the drama and subtly of his own reading. So those opening horns are imposing indeed, and the simple melody that follows, little more than an ascending scale, is shaped with tender care, as if every note matters.
It turns out that this is not typical of Serebrier’s Dvořák, and in the symphonies that follow he takes are more generalized approach. He clearly loves the folk dances that inspire so many of the main themes, and once a spirited melody is in full swing he rarely intervenes, leaving the music to spin its course. That suits some symphonies better than others. Nos. 2 and 3 are modest affairs, and Serebrier makes no real effort to elevate them. Nos. 4–6 come off best. Here, Dvořák finds the sweet spot between the naïve optimism of his folk sources and the Beethovenian symphonism that he aspires to. The Sixth comes off best, Serebrier conducting with a light touch and the orchestra responding with bright, spirited playing.
When we reach No. 7, we are in much-contested territory, and the final three symphonies must compete against much more than just the box sets. The Seventh is the least successful. It is a piece that needs more weight and more drama—more intervention all round from the podium. This account is light and breezy where it needs to be brooding and sullen. The Eighth comes off better. The low strings are gorgeous at the opening, and there is much fine orchestral playing throughout. Less so in the Ninth. Here we need incisive brass and a weighty string tone, both of which are lacking. But who would buy a box set for the Ninth anyway?
Speaking of boxes, one advantage of reissuing individual releases is that none of the symphonies are spread across more than one disc. However, the fillers are eccentrically chosen and placed. We get the complete Legends, op. 59, selections from the Slavonic Dances, opp. 46 and 72, the Czech Suite, In Nature’s Realm, and Scherzo capriccioso. Given the comprehensive approach to the symphonies, this is a curiously erratic sampling. But the focus on up-beat Bohemian-dance-type movements clearly reflects Serebrier’s interests, and his strengths. His approach of whipping up a dance movement and then letting the melody run its course is ideal in the Slavonic Dances. I just wish the discs were organized differently. You put on disc five, expecting to hear the quiet opening of the Seventh Symphony, or disc six, expecting to hear the quiet opening of the Ninth, but in both cases you are immediately blasted with a single Presto Slavonic Dance that has been prefixed for no obvious reason.
Mixed fortunes, then, for Serebrier’s Dvořák. If the box is available in your territory, it sells at super-budget price, currently £16 here in the UK. It is well worth that for its highlights, Symphonies 1, 5, and 6. Most of the other readings are attractive too, but are recommended mainly to those who like their Dvořák lively and light.
This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 46:3.