BBC Symphony Orchestra / Jiří Bělohlávek

Dvorák: Symphonies Nos 5, 6; Scherzo capriccioso; The Hero's Song

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Although the performances and the repertoire on the first disc of this two-disc set are more than somewhat disappointing, the performance and the repertoire on the second disc make it all worthwhile. The performers are the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Czech conductor Jirí Belohlávek and the repertoire are two middle symphonies and a couple of single-movement orchestral works by Bohemian composer Antonin Dvorák. But while the Fifth Symphony that opens the first disc is pleasantly tuneful, attractively colorful, and solidly composed and the Scherzo capriccioso that follows is wonderfully tuneful, wildly colorful, and imaginatively composed, the late symphonic poem called The Hero's Song that closes the disc is thematically banal, extravagantly colorful, and nearly incoherently composed. And the performances decline along with the music. While the BBC's winds are fabulous in the Fifth, they are close to cloying in The Hero's Song, while the brass is magnificent in the Scherzo capriccioso, they are almost bombastic in The Hero's Song, and while Belohlávek's conducting is assured throughout, he cannot force the unruly structure of The Hero's Song to cohere.

However, Belohlávek and the BBC's performance of Sixth Symphony on the second disc is easily as good as the best ever recorded. Of course, the Sixth is far and away the finest of Dvorák's middle symphonies -- brightly scored, brilliantly melodic, irresistibly rhythmic, and cogently, even compellingly, composed, the Sixth is an endlessly appealing work. And it gets a performance wholly worthy of it from Belohlávek and the BBC. The winds are tart and sweet, the strings are tender and strong, the brass is blended and balanced, and under Belohlávek, the ensemble is tight but loose and supple but powerful. Even compared with the finest performances of the past -- the Kertész, the Rowicki, the Kubelík, and the later Mackerras -- Belohlávek's Sixth is as lyrical and idiomatic as any of them, more dramatic than most of them, and arguably more heroic than any of them. Listeners who love the work, love Dvorák, or love great, late nineteenth century symphonies will love this disc -- although they may be disappointed by the first disc. Warner Classics' sound is rich, ripe, and full.

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