Witold Rowicki's cycle of the symphonies of Antonin Dvorák with the London Symphony released on Philips in the late '60s and early '70s was only the second complete cycle of those works ever recorded. The first, István Kertész's Decca set from the mid-'60s, was also with the LSO. Rowicki's cycle has one huge advantage over Kertész's: the London musicians really knew the early symphonies after having learned them under the Hungarian conductor, and their playing here is much more polished than it was prior. Rowicki's cycle, though, has one huge disadvantage: Kertész's performances have a freshness and a sense of happy discovery that Rowicki cannot match.
Beyond advantages and disadvantages, the two cycles are wonderfully complimentary. Where Kertész's Dvorák is at heart a lyrical composer in the style of Schubert, who wrote symphonies full of great themes and beautiful melodies, Rowicki's Dvorák is essentially a dramatic composer in the style of Beethoven, who wrote symphonies full of strong forms and powerful rhythms. Rowicki's Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh are big-boned, hard-muscled works, while Kertész's are more openly heart-on-the-sleeve. Where Rowicki's Eighth and Ninth are rhetorical works of imposing magnificence, Kertész's have a celebratory, almost populist bent. The biggest contrast, however, is between the first four symphonies, works that were thought lost until after the Second World War. Kertész finds all the beauty there is in these youthful works, but Rowicki's more cogent and much more driven interpretations make a better case for them as symphonies. Sonically, both cycles exemplified the best of their companies at the time. Decca gave Kertész lush, deep, and colorful sound, while Philips gave Rowicki crisp, bright, and immediate sound. In the end, both sets are superlative and both belong in the collection of anyone who admires and enjoys Dvorák's symphonies.