Life With Czech Music - Dvorak, Smetana / Charles Mackerras

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Also available: Life with Czech Music - Janácek, Martinu / Sir Charles Mackerras ----- Reviews: Symphonic Variations, Legends, Scherzo capriccioso Charles Mackerras recorded all of...
Also available: Life with Czech Music - Janácek, Martinu / Sir Charles Mackerras



Symphonic Variations, Legends, Scherzo capriccioso

Charles Mackerras recorded all of this music in London for EMI's "Eminence" series, but those discs may be very difficult to find, and in any case they fail to stand up to these marvelous remakes. What makes so many Mackerras performances special is the conductor's buoyant sense of rhythm, and when he's working the Czech Philharmonic in top form that result can be (and in this case is) exquisite. There's no need to go on at length about the virtues of these performances. A few examples suffice to illustrate the point: there's the wonderful lightness of touch Mackerras brings to the waltz episode in the Symphonic Variations and its dazzling final fugue; the care with which he balances the percussion in the Scherzo capriccioso so that its rhythmic contributions tell without ever becoming overbearing; and in the Legends, the snap he brings to the quicker pieces (such as No. 3) and the wonderfully subtle way he sets up the appearance (in No. 6) of that gorgeous tune from the Third Symphony's slow movement. Sonically this disc is equally fine. Note the perfect balances between winds and strings throughout and the gorgeous contribution of the harp in the Legends that call for it. Totally great!

--David Hurwitz,

Symphony no 6, Golden Spinning Wheel

In his equally laudatory review of this fantastic new release, my colleague Christophe Huss salutes Supraphon for managing to remain true to its dedication to Czech music while at the same time upholding the highest standards of performance quality. To this observation I can only add "Amen!" The label already has a couple of noteworthy versions of Dvorák's luminous Sixth Symphony with the incomparable (in this music anyway) Czech Philharmonic--a very good one by Neumann and a classic account by Ancerl. In fact, this symphony has been very well-served on disc, with excellent recordings by Kubelik, Rowicki, and Suitner, to name three of the best that come immediately to mind. Nevertheless, this newcomer bids fair to move right to the top of the available discography.

Recorded live, the rapport in evidence between Charles Mackerras and the orchestra really is the stuff of legends. There are so many outstanding moments that it's hard to settle on just a few, but consider the fortissimo counterstatement of the opening tune, just a touch "pesante" for added emphasis, or the gorgeously natural rubato between phrases of the same movement's second subject, and the way the coda really takes off and builds in energy straight through to the final climax. Then there's the usual gorgeous wind playing from the orchestra, so evident in the Adagio. Mackerras drives the scherzo with exhilarating abandon, and although he never bears down on the rhythm too heavily (always maintaining the lilt of the dance), the clarity of texture allows such characterful touches as the offbeat timpani in the reprise to register with full impact. I also love the extra punch he brings to the principal section's return after the trio.

Best of all, Mackerras treats us to what must be the most thrilling account of the finale yet captured on disc. It takes off like the wind and never looks back, simply accumulating energy as it goes. The great string fugato that initiates the coda flies by as if on mighty wings, and the grandiosity of the closing pages never loses that vital rhythmic impulse that gives the music its inner life. I wish that Supraphon had not included the applause at the end, but when you consider that all of this, and so much else besides, is happening in real time you will understand that anyone who believes that the era of "great" conductors is past simply hasn't been listening. If this sort of artistic communion between conductor and orchestra in the service of a brilliant interpretation isn't greatness, then we need to ask whether the term has any meaning at all.

The Golden Spinning Wheel (a studio recording this time) also receives what is arguably its finest performance on disc, even considering Harnoncourt's outstanding recent version. The opening, usually a blur of muddy rhythms in the lower strings and indifferently played percussion, here sounds as crisp and clean as a spring morning. I have never understood why some performances cut the central episode wherein the holy hermit gets back the heroine's various body parts (so he can patch her together again) in exchange for the components of the golden spinning wheel. The threefold musical repetition is not literal, and the orchestration is enchanting. The section is, in effect, the slow movement following the scherzo in which poor Dornicka gets hacked to bits in the first place, and it's a necessary four minutes of contrast. Finally, this is the moment where we encounter most of the "spinning wheel" music of the title. Mackerras rightly doesn't delete it, and hearing those deliciously chubby brass chorales and lovely wind solos alongside such characterful phrasing, you can't imagine why anyone would. The last few minutes offer as pure an expression of joy as you'll ever hear.

Supraphon's engineering is outstanding in both works, a touch warmer in the symphony (perhaps as a result of the presence of an audience), but in all respects as fine as any from this source. That audience, by the way, is absolutely silent, and with music-making of such spellbinding quality going on it's no wonder. Coming hard on the heels of his sensational Janácek double CD a few months ago, it's clear that Mackerras' Supraphon recordings will comprise a small but outstanding legacy worthy to stand beside the great recordings of such legends as Talich or Ancerl, and that the great Czech tradition is very much alive both in Prague and at Supraphon. Buy a few of these: they make terrific gifts for special occasions, and you can be sure to get a hearty "Thank you!" from the lucky objects of your affection. But first, treat yourself.
--David Hurwitz,

Symphonies 8 & 9

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,

Slavonic Dances

It's been along time since Supraphon made a great new recording of Dvorák's delicious Slavonic Dances, but it's been worth the wait. Charles Mackerras is one of the two or three finest conductors alive at present, and he knows this music, loves it, and makes the orchestra play it as if it were as fresh as the day it was written. This is no mean feat, since the Czech Philharmonic knows these pieces blindfolded; or at least they think that they do. It's amazing how many seemingly new details Mackerras reveals (particularly in his characterful treatment of the percussion parts, and the careful dynamic balances involving the brass section) that on closer examination turn out to have been exactly what the composer wrote all along. He's particularly crisp and attentive to rhythm in the waltz-like dances (Op. 46 No. 6 and Op. 72 No. 8), where he catches the music's lilt to perfection. But then, he doesn't really put a foot wrong anywhere. The great recordings of these pieces are by Kubelik (DG), Dorati (Mercury), Szell (Sony), Talich (Supraphon), and Sejna (Supraphon). This newcomer, warmly recorded with fine inner detail, belongs in their august company.
--David Hurwitz,

Symphonic Poems

"You won't find better conducting in this music anywhere. Charles Mackerras finds so many wonderful details in these pieces that it's impossible to list them all, and he does it at all tempos and dynamic levels. Listen to his subtle underlining of rhythm in The Wood Dove's opening funeral march, and compare it to the unrivaled glitter of its central party music. Bask in the woodwind timbres at the opening of The Noonday Witch, and marvel at just how much music Mackerras finds even in the stormy climax of The Water Goblin. It's an unalloyed delight from the first note to the last.

Of course, the Czech Philharmonic plays these pieces magnificently. The sonics, however, are not as brilliant as the performances, and that's not unusual from this venue, with its somewhat cavernous acoustic. Slightly recessed brass and percussion lessen the impact of the climaxes somewhat, but it's awfully hard to quibble when the interpretations are this strong. Self-recommending."

-- David Hurwitz,

Ma Vlast
Taken down live at the 1999 Prague Spring Festival, Charles Mackerras' performance offers a typically fresh, vital look at Smetana's masterpiece. With the Czech Philharmonic in fine form, the result is completely recommendable, even if it doesn't have quite the personality of Kubelik's emotional return performance of 1990, or that special orchestral sonority that Talich or Ancerl enjoyed. Mackerras' interpretive insights are subtle, but fans of this music will find plenty to enjoy, such as the correctly played (for once!) trumpet rhythms at the climax of "Vltava", the carefully balanced brass and string sonorities at the opening of "From Bohemia's Woods and Fields", and the propulsive thrust that cleverly disguises the monothematic repetitiousness of "Tábor" and "Blaník". The up-close, live recording manages to minimize most audience noises but necessarily spotlights certain instruments (harps right at the beginning) in a way that precludes a truly expansive soundstage. On the other hand, the notorious reverberation of the Rudolfinum has been successfully tamed, thanks in part to the presence of the public. We're not exactly dying for another recording of this work, but it's impossible not to welcome music making of this enthusiasm and idiomatic security with anything less than open arms.

--David Hurwitz,

Product Description:

  • Release Date: October 15, 2010

  • UPC: 099925404123

  • Catalog Number: SU4041-2

  • Label: Supraphon

  • Number of Discs: 6

  • Composer: Antonín Dvořák, Bedrich Smetana

  • Conductor: Sir Charles Mackerras

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Prague Symphony Orchestra

  • Performer: Sir Charles Mackerras