For those unfamiliar with the veteran Czech conductor Stupka, these two Dvorak performances provide a brilliant introduction.
DVORAK: Symphony No. 9 in e minor, Op. 95 “From the New World”; Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Op. 88 – Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/ Frantisek Stupka – Praga Digitals stereo-only SACD PRD/DSD 350 134, 78:23 (8/12/16) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] *****:
The name of Czech conductor Frantisek Stupka (1879-1965) certainly did not convey to me the same authority as I had accorded Vaclav Talich, Karel Ancerl, and Rafael Kubelik, but these performances – of the “New World” Symphony (6 January 1964) and the G Major Symphony (8 January 1959) – have changed my perspective. Stupka – having made his reputation with the Czech String Quartet – served as co-director of the Czech Philharmonic from 1946-1956 and director of the Moravian Philharmonic, the latter of which remained an “Eastern” ensemble without recorded documentation. The live broadcasts here preserved by Praga prove instantly refreshing and eminently affectionate readings of repertory that once more – under an inspirational conductor – throw off any sedimentation or ossification from long-wrought familiarity.
The reading of the New World Symphony proceeds linearly but with inflamed interior voices from the CPO winds and low strings. Stupka’s “personality” as such arises through the evolution of the music itself, much in the manner we ascribe to Eduard van Beinum and his primus inter pares leadership of the Concertgebouw. Everywhere Dvorak the singer gains prominence, which becomes epically significant in the famous Largo movement. But in the more animated movements, the occasional horn or trumpet flourish adds a new zest or turn of phrase that enliven our expectations. Stupka’s temperament remains indelibly romantic, but he proceeds without any of the “heroic” mannerisms of that period per se, such as the huge portamentos we find in Mengelberg’s readings. The “Indian festival” atmosphere of the Scherzo provides a stunning impact, direct and uncluttered by false emphasis. True, we hear musical echoes of the Beethoven Ninth Symphony, but without menace. The entire last movement becomes a mighty synthesis in E Major, a victory whose Manichean objective has been played down in favor of humanity’s rapport with Nature.
The 1890 Eighth Symphony remains a miracle of melodic fecundity and natural transcendence. Rush forward and listen to the bassoon work Stupka evinces late in the E-flat Major Adagio of the G Major Symphony to savor the sound image this conductor can evoke from the CPO when the orchestra responds fully to its leader. The warbles of the flute in the waltz-like Allegretto grazioso rarely have resounded so gently and bucolically as they do here. The Finale: Allegro ma non troppo features a marvelous performance of the variation with flute, leading to a superb marcato evocation of the C Minor central section. The elasticity of Stupka’s line – evident from the opening notes of both symphonies – defines his approach as much as does that of his esteemed colleague Talich. The art of orchestral transition – so much lauded in the great interpreters, like Furtwangler – here reveals itself in manifold examples as this final movement unfolds. From the darkly plaintive elements of the dumka the music suddenly erupts into a joyful Slavonic Dance with a mere gesture of the baton. The richness of the Czech Philharmonic cello section hardly needs further comment from me. The last page blisters the imagination in its swift, almost maniacal outburst of Bohemian ecstasy.
These are two of the finest Dvorak symphonic renditions to come my way in many moons.