Czech Philharmonic Orchestra / Karel Sejna
(Supraphon SU 1916-2 011)
Kubelik mastered their lyricism; Szell, their rhythmic vitality; Talich, their nostalgic sentiment; and Maazel, their instrumental sophistication. But if you want a truly comprehensive interpretation of the Slavonic Dances, one where vernal freshness and musical intelligence reign supreme, then it simply has to be Karel Sejna's prize-winning 1959 recording with the Czech Philharmonic.
Sejna started his career in 1921 leading the orchestra's double-bass section, then Talich spotted his conducting talent and it was success all the way from there - albeit largely within Czech borders. Sejna's discography, which is currently reappearing on mid-price Supraphon CDs, includes all Smetana's major orchestral works plus significant Dvorak. His mastery of the Czech romantic idiom is roughly analogous to Boult's of our own, while these particular performances achieve a perfect blend of "top line" and counter-melody (much aided by remarkably good stereo sound), perfect tempo relations, keen orchestral attack in the faster pieces (try Dances Nos 1, 5, 8 or 15), delightfully pointed wind-playing (try Nos 5 and 7), warmly inflected string lines (Nos 4,10 and 15) and a childlike candour that lends a sunny countenance even to the darker pieces in Op 72. As musical tonics go, this one would be hard to beat.
Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli:
The Vatican Recordings
with the Symphony Orchestra of the RAI Rome /
Massimo Freccia and Gianandrea Gavazzeni
(Memoria / Complete Record Co 999-001; four CDs)
Someone up there must have been listening when, 11 bars before the end of Michelangeli's 1960 Vatican City performance of the Emperor, lightning struck, thunder rolled and the pianist himself responded with a ferocious spurt of virtuosity. And you can hear it all for yourself in a fairly serviceable recording, although there's keen representation from "the other side" in a reading of Liszt's Totentanz (from 1962) where the piano upstages the orchestra with such energy, control, beauty of tone and phrasal imagination that no words can do it justice.
It's a sensational performance, provocative (Pope John XXIII bore witness) and coupled with a long-breathed, tonally resounding account of the Schumann Concerto. And that's just one CD of four, the others boasting that 1960 Emperor, plus 1987 mono recordings of Beethovens's Sonata Op 2 No 3, Chopin's Andante spianato et Grande Polonaise brillante, Debussy's Images (both sets), Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit and a 1977 set of Debussy's Preludes (Book 1). "Late" Michelangeli was less prone to minute calculation than his younger self, but the range of nuance granted to, say, Debussy's "Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut" beggars description. Absolutely riveting stuff.