June 06, 2013


Dvořák: Complete Published Orchestral Works. Jenő Jandó, piano; Ilya Kaler, violin; Alexander Trostiansky, violin; Maria Kliegel, cello; Dmitry Yablonsky, cello; Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra, Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, Russian Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Capella Istropolitana, Oslo Philharmonic Wind Soloists and BBC Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Stephen Gunzenhauser, Antoni Wit, Camilla Kolchinsky, Dmitry Yablonsky, Michael Halász, Felix Korobov, Zdeněk Košler, Libor Pešek, Jaroslav Krček and Robert Stankovsky. Naxos. $59.99 (17 CDs).

     Among Naxos’ many classical-music innovations was the White Box, a bargain-price collection of complete this, that or the other thing. More than a decade ago, Naxos released a number of White Box recordings, including, for example, ones offering the complete symphonies on Mozart, Shostakovich and Bruckner – the last of those in performances by Georg Tintner that remain fascinating today. Naxos continues to produce or re-release impressive “complete” music packages even though it has moved beyond the White Box format to offer stronger boxes with more-modern graphic design. These new “complete” sets have both the strengths and the weaknesses of the original White Box releases, which means that they have far more positives than negatives. The 17-CD complete Dvořák set, essentially a repackaging of performances from the original Dvořák White Box, is a case in point. As a compilation and one-stop-shop for the composer’s orchestral music, it is fully successful, even if a number of individual performances may not be the strongest ones available.

     It is clear from the listing of artists that this set – unlike, say, the Tintner White Box of Bruckner – is not a fully integrated group of performances; it is more of an anthology of recordings in the Naxos catalog, pulled together into 17 identical-looking CD sleeves, with timings and performer credits on the back of each one and with a nicely done 42-page booklet with information on the music and the many performers.

     Every single performance stands up well. The nine symphonies are all offered by the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra under Stephen Gunzenhauser, and all are played quite stylishly and with idiomatic, almost intuitive comprehension of Dvořák’s rhythms and the richness of his scoring. The orchestra is not the most precise one around, nor the fullest in string sound, and Gunzenhauser never brings the fire and passion to the symphonies that were delivered István Kertész in his pioneering London Symphony Orchestra recordings in the 1960s – but no one else has ever matched Kertész, either. Gunzenhauser is a more-than-serviceable conductor who clearly has studied the music of the symphonies and come up with an intelligent, sensible approach to it. He is in fact the dominant conductor in this set, and does an equally fine job with the 10 Legends, three of the late tone poems, and half a dozen of the composer’s sumptuous overtures – including the Nature, Life and Love trilogy, here presented in the correct order (In Nature’s Realm, Carnival and Othello).

     The numerous other performers also acquit themselves quite well. Dmitry Yablonsky does double duty, as cellist in Silent Woods and Rondo for Cello and Orchestra and as conductor in the “American” Suite and elsewhere; the magnificent Cello Concerto, though, features Maria Kliegel, who handles it beautifully and with great sweep and focused intensity. Capella Istropolitana under Jaroslav Krček performs the Serenade for Strings, the Oslo Philharmonic Wind Soloists offer the Serenade for Winds, and the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra – the most-used ensemble in the set – has Zdeněk Košler as conductor for a fine rendition of the two sets of Slavonic Dances. One of the pleasures here is having all this excellent music in the same place – 19 hours of it! Another joy is the overall quality of the performances, most decidedly including those of Ilya Kaler in the Violin Concerto and Jenő Jandó in the Piano Concerto. And yet another major plus is the opportunity to discover orchestral pieces that listeners may never have heard before, such as Seven Interludes for Small Orchestra, the overture to King and Charcoal Burner, and excerpts from The Jacobin.

     These recordings were made in various locations between 1989 and 2003, but the sound is at a consistently high level and the performances fit together better, stylistically, than might be expected from the plethora of performers. The prices of Naxos CDs have gone up since the days of the White Box, but remain well below the norm for today’s recordings – and the $3.50-per-disc cost of this particular set is simply unbeatable. Far too many concertgoers and home listeners know Dvořák’s music through only a handful of works, from the ubiquitous Symphony No. 9 (“From the New World”) to the Scherzo Capriccioso. What this set does is present the familiar works very well indeed, while also offering a great deal of marvelous, less-known music by the Czech master, in performances that have stood up very well for a decade or more and give every evidence of providing continuing listening enjoyment for many years to come.

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