This past Tuesday Naxos released a 17-CD box set of the complete published orchestral works of Antonin Dvořák. This is an impressive collection that includes the nine symphonies, the five symphonic poems (programmatic tone poems, which may have been inspired by the thirteen compositions that Franz Liszt also called symphonic poems), three concertos, the orchestral version of the two Slavonic Dances collections (Opus 46 and Opus 72), the concert overtures, and several other works that do not necessarily categorize easily. Many might think that this is more Dvořák than anyone other than the most dedicate scholar can bear. However, Dvořák has established a firm hold on the “standard repertoire,” particularly where symphonic music is concerned; and those who peruse the full track listing (not currently on the Amazon.com page but in easily readable form on its product page on the Naxos Web site) may well be surprised at just how familiar so much of this music is, thanks not only to programming decisions by orchestra conductors but also to broadcasts on classical radio stations. (I first came to know most of the symphonic poems thanks to KUSC in Los Angeles.)
Recordings were made between 1988 and 2003 in a variety of venues. Nine conductors were involved leading eight orchestras, along with the Oslo Philharmonic Wind Soloists, which performed the Opus 44 wind serenade in D minor without a conductor. The bottom line number, so to speak, is that this amounts to a little over nineteen hours of music.
As might be imagined, when it comes to satisfying listening experiences, there is considerable variation across both the compositions themselves and the performances captured in this collection. For example, the later symphonies fare noticeably better than the earlier ones, which may be due to Stephen Gunzenhauser (who conducted all of them) deciding that the earlier ones did not deserve as much preparation time. (This contrasts sharply with Neeme Järvi, who has given a killer reading of the very first symphony.) On the other hand, while I have to confess to a personal preference for the four-hand piano versions, I have to say that I was rather pleased with orchestral accounts of the two Slavonic Dances sets and the ten Opus 59 compositions that Dvořák called Legends.
I should also observe that it is nice to have a recording that presents what Dvořák called his “Nature, Life and Love” trilogy of concert overtures juxtaposed for consecutive listening. These were published with consecutive opus numbers, 91 “In Nature’s Realm,” 92 “Carnival,” and 93 “Othello.” Such listening affirms what many listeners may have suspected, which is that the opening “nature” theme of Opus 91 resurfaces in both Opus 92 and Opus 93, suggesting that the primal forces of nature underlie both the “wild life” of the carnival and the “passionate life,” which has the potential for both creation and destruction. As one might hope, these were also interpreted by a single conductor, Gunzenhauser leading the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra.
My only real quibble is with the accompanying booklet. The unnamed editor has done an impressive job of providing both background biographical information and text summaries of every composition. Similar attention has been given to statements for all performers and ensembles. What is missing, however, is any summary of who is performing what. For this, readers who share my interest in such matters, will find their curiosity best satisfied by consulting the aforementioned Naxos product page.
Oh, brave new world, in which the Internet can compensate for minor production flaws!