Dvorák: Symphonies No 8 & 9 / Mackerras, Prague So
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At 80 years young, Charles Mackerras remains one of the great conductors of our era, not to mention one of the most unheralded. His unfailing musicality, intelligence, and sheer joy in performing communicates vividly in these two glorious performances, beautifully recorded live in September, 2005. They are the kind of interpretations that make you listen as if for the first time to music you probably know well. This isn't just because Mackerras opts for the Urtext editions of both scores, most noticeable in the finale of the Eighth Symphony, where after the central climax he has the cellos play the variant of the main theme contained in Dvorák's autograph (Harnoncourt and a few others do similarly). What really distinguishes these performances is their sheer excitement and vital sense of flow, a function of rhythmically characterful phrasing allied to ideally transparent textures.
This is as true of the bucolic first two movements of the Eighth Symphony, where the woodwinds are especially delightful, as it is in the tremendously physical and passionate initial allegro of the Ninth. Has this movement's coda ever sounded more stormily agitated? And notice how marvellously Mackerras judges the tempo of the ensuing Largo, perfectly poised between rapt contemplation and easeful forward motion. Rhythmic acuity is the hallmark of both scherzos: a deliciously pointed waltz in the Eighth, and a swiftly vivacious Slavonic dance in the Ninth.
In the two finales, so often turned into stop-and-start affairs by less adept conductors, Mackerras creates an irresistible feeling of culmination, choosing rousing initial tempos and then for the most part sticking to them. The Eighth's concluding variations seldom have come across more cogently, particularly the lazy last three, which never bog down in excessive Romantic reverie. The Prague Symphony Orchestra responds to Mackerras' direction with amazing gusto, as if it doesn't already know the music backwards and forwards, and the audience is admirably silent. There are other wonderful performances of this music out there, but this truly is as good as it gets.
--David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com
Catalog Number: SU3848-2
Composer: Antonín Dvořák
Conductor: Sir Charles Mackerras
Orchestra/Ensemble: Prague Symphony Orchestra