During the past three years, American record catalogues have been titillatingly full of fascinating releases on Supraphon--Czechoslovakia's state-run label--of music by Dvorak, Smetana, Janacek and the less familiar Czech names. The actual availability of the recordings here has, however, proven illusory.
Supraphon had been passed from one half-hearted distributor to another, often competing for shelf space with other labels more aggressively marketed by the same distributor. However, the Czech label's prospects are suddenly brighter, now that U.S. distribution is being handled by Denon America, a U.S. affiliate of Denon/Nippon Columbia, the actual manufacturer of Supraphon's compact discs.
Dvorak is at the heart of Denon's latest release of Supraphon CDs, as he is at the heart of the music of Czechoslovakia. And that country's most celebrated conductor, Vaclav Neumann, and orchestra, the Czech Philharmonic, are the artists employed in the magnificent and still underappreciated Symphony No. 6 in D (7705), whose hauntingly lovely slow movement and thrilling scherzo, with its furious cross-rhythms, are among the finest things the composer wrote. The performance is exquisite, played with the flavorsome national characteristics--the wide oboe and horn vibrato, the bucolic clarinets--that distinguish this orchestra's sound from the homogenized pan-European sound encountered elsewhere.
Dvorak's Third Symphony (7668) discloses the benign influence of Wagner (other composers of the time were simply swallowed up by it), which contributes to an attractive, tuneful and noble creation that seems immature only in its overblown, overlong finale. The Fifth Symphony (7377) combines the vestiges of outside influence--Wagner and Brahms fleetingly meet here--with the original voice of a Czech nationalist asserting itself in music of lyric distinction and vast energy.
Neumann and the Czech Philharmonic, so lively and accomplished in the Sixth Symphony, are merely passable in the other two works, where the conductor's rhythms tend to be slack and orchestral execution indifferent, with thin-toned, scratchy violins. The same artists sound even more dispirited in Dvorak's B-minor Cello Concerto (1152). Nor is the soloist, the young West German cellist Angelica May, up to her task, producing a thin, unfocused tone unsuited to the grandiose lyricism and virtuoso demands of the score. The concerto is coupled with the attractive, marginally better played Sonata da Camera, a sweetly sad tribute by an expatriate Bohuslav Martinu to his unhappy (in 1940) Czech homeland.
Without sacrificing the more appealing elements of its native sound, the Czech Philharmonic sounds more like a world-class orchestra under the German conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch. He is not one of the glamour boys of the podium, but rather an enlightened disciplinarian who is able to draw clean-textured, rich-toned ensemble playing from his charges in two large-scale choral compositions by Dvorak, the sweetly tuneful "Stabat Mater" of 1877 (7378/79, two discs) and the equally lengthy but more tautly constructed Requiem of 1890 (7427/28, two discs).
Sawallisch proves a strong, idiomatic leader in both works, with the estimable support of the lush Czech Philharmonic Choir and good-to-excellent solo voices, among which the radiant soprano of Gabriela Benackova and ardent tenor of Peter Dvorsky stand out.
Smetana is represented by his most famous orchestral opus, the tone-poem cycle "Ma Vlast" ("My Fatherland"), coupled with his three earlier tone poems--"Wallenstein's Camp," "Richard III" and "Haakon Jarl"--on two discs (7724/5), and by Czechoslovakia's unofficial national opera, "The Bartered Bride" (7309/ll, three discs).
"Ma Vlast" is again entrusted to Neumann and the Czech Philharmonic, which gives decent enough performances that are nonetheless eclipsed by the fervid work of the same orchestra under Vaclav Smetacek, with the entire cycle (the earlier tone poems are expendable) on a single Supraphon CD (7241).
"Bride" is deliciously, idiomatically flavorful, with Zdenek Kosler leading the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and its choral adjunct with lively precision. The central roles are charmingly taken by Benackova, Dvorsky, Miroslav Kopp and Richard Novak.
The sole Janacek recording among these new releases is the first complete-edition recording of "The Danube," a loosely constructed symphony with programmatic connotations--something vague, and ultimately irrelevant, about a woman drowning herself in the river--left as a set of sketches at the composer's death in 1928. The sketches were organized and orchestrated by a pupil of Janacek's and first performed only last year, by the members of the Janacek Philharmonic of Ostrava under the skillful direction of Otakar Trhlik, who also serve as the participants in this recording (1150).
"The Danube" is darkly attractive, decidedly viable stuff, reminiscent of the reflective pages of "Katya Kabanova," the opera on which Janacek was simultaneously at work. The four-movement symphony, which includes an interlude for solo soprano, is coupled here with the composer's early, Dvorak-inspired and very pretty "Idyll" for strings.