Antonín Dvorák: Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70; Symphony No. 8 in G major, Op. 88

Philharmonia Orchestra/Sir Charles Mackerras (Signum Classics SIGCD183)

3 May 2010 5 stars

DvorakAs the Australian conductor Sir Charles Mackerras approaches his eighty-fifth birthday later this year, he continues to make impressive contributions to an already imposing discography. World-renowned in large part for his fervent advocacy of Czech music, Mackerras has made two significant Dvořák releases already in 2010. His accounts of the Symphonic Poems with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, available on Supraphon (SU40122), have already received great acclaim. This disc of arguably the composer's two finest symphonies (Nos. 7 and 8) with London's Philharmonia Orchestra, again, reinforces the maestro's standing as an esteemed torchbearer for Slavonic orchestral repertoire.

Recorded live at the Royal Festival Hall in October 2008, these performances represent a voyage of wondrous and quite unexpected rediscovery. Never before has this reviewer's attention been more assertively wrested by the opening statement of the D-minor Seventh Symphony, Op. 70 which, in the hands of Mackerras, becomes a living, breathing, muscle-flexing creature abruptly roused from its slumber. These highly mysterious beginnings mark the start of a refreshingly forward-moving yet attractively supple rendition of the movement, culminating ultimately in a spine-tingling and unexpectedly early accelerando at its climax.

The pastoral slow movement continues in a similar vein, Mackerras moving seamlessly between the nobility, apprehension and impassioned resilience of the principal themes whilst maintaining an air of overall simplicity. The ensuing Scherzo sheds its serious symphonic shell in favour of dance-like sprightliness, Mackerras delicately maintaining an impeccable balance between melody and countermelody. Deft phrasing and crisp brass playing drive the Finale through to the symphony's conclusion, with a perfectly weighted and exultant final shift to D major crowning a terrific performance.

Symphony No. 8 in G major, Op. 88 is no less successfully portrayed than its predecessor. The first-movement Allegro con brio contains a seemingly endless progression of freshly inspired ideas, and each one is individually – sometimes almost idiosyncratically – characterised by Mackerras, who nevertheless sees each turn of phrase within the context of a ten-minute symphonic essay. This is utterly sublime conducting, the delectable fruits of a heartfelt relationship between maestro, music and musicians. Hear the contrast between yearning and contentedness in the beautifully-crafted Adagio, or the rhythmically bustle of the Trio section in the Allegretto grazioso, for further evidence of this attractive rapport. These movements provide a wonderful backdrop to the evergreen Allegro ma non troppo that brings the symphony to a close, a movement full of pent up nervous energy which Mackerras gradually allows to seep through until its final burst of unadulterated jubilation.

The successes of these performances would be quite implausible without the superb Philharmonia Orchestra, which is in fine fettle throughout. The strings, in particular, are tremendously responsive to Dvořák's instruction and Mackerras' direction, and have cultivated a warmly ardent tone (the high tessitura is especially exhilarating) which could easily be misidentified as belonging to a renowned Czech or Slovak ensemble. They are aided by the Royal Festival Hall acoustics which, though often lambasted as dry and unforgiving, allow Mackerras' subtle shaping of the composer's textures and the orchestra's fine playing to be experienced in much-needed clarity.

These recordings will present significant appeal both to experienced Dvořákians and to those less familiar with this magnificent music. Be sure not to miss out on this exceptional contribution to the catalogue.

By William Norris