Wednesday, July 06, 2011

CDs that should be in every medicine cabinet


Being rather ill has been a strange experience. Beethoven Quartets and Schubert Masses are meant to figure prominently in the listening of those who have wobbled slightly on the perch. But not in mine; instead I have been relishing the healing power of a composer whose music does not usually feature in my playlists or On An Overgrown Path.

Antonín Dvořák's reputation as a symphonist is both enhanced and distorted by the popular success of his ninth essay in the medium, the New World Symphony. The other late symphonies, Nos 7 and 8, appear occasionally in the concert hall and No 5 turns up once in a blue moon. Which completely ignores five other symphonies, works that are genuinely, to use an overworked and much abused term, life-affirming.

Clear first choice for a survey of the complete Dvořák symphonies is István Kertész with the London Symphony Orchestra on Decca. Another reviewer has remarked how their "orchestral sound pulses with life", and that sums up this definitive set perfectly. István Kertész was born into a Hungarian Jewish family in Budapest in 1923 and many of his extended family died in Auschwitz during the Holocaust. He survived the war and after completing his musical studies quickly built a reputation conducting leading ensembles including the Cologne Opera, and Berlin and Israel Philharmonic Orchestras.

Kertész, seen below, was principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra from 1965 to 1968 and his classic accounts of the Dvořák Symphonies date from the period 1963 to 1968 when the orchestra was at the top of its game. Tragically, Kertész died in a drowning accident in the Mediterranean off the coast of Israel in 1973. (In a chilling example of concatenation I had been swimming alone in a remote and inaccessible Mediterranean cove just hours before I was rushed into a French hospital in May. Memo to self, avoid sea interludes).


Due to his dreadfully early death Kertész's recorded legacy is small but quite remarkable. Do not be put off buying his Dvořák because it was recorded in the 1960s. In fact the opposite applies, you should buy it because of the recording date. All the recordings were made in the much lamented Kingsway Hall by legendary Decca producer Ray Minshull, and they serve as an eloquent reminder that all that is digital is not gold. There is a sense of spontaneity, including occasional quite excusable small lapses of ensemble and intonation, that makes them sound like concert performances. But above all there is a sonic impact and clarity of stereo image that puts them up there with other great recordings of all time, including the iconic Mercury recordings with the London Symphony Orchestra that date from the same period.

Ray Minshull provides the excellent sleeve notes for the Decca set and in them tells how the Dvořák cycle started when plans for Kertész to record Elgar's First Symphony were dropped at the last moment - oh, how I wish we had the Dvořák and his Elgar. But, thankfully, we do have the Dvořák set which does such a valuable service in making the little known early symphonies available. The Decca box of six CDs, which includes the nine symphonies plus overtures and tone poems, can currently be bought for less than £20. Need I say more?

In the string quartet literature, the merit of Dvořák's little known late quartets mirrors that of his early symphonies. His Quartet No 12 'American' is perhaps too well known. But what of Nos 10, 11, 13 and 14? All are quite wonderful healing music awaiting discovery; for starters try the Panocha Quartets' recently re-released mid-price 3 CD digipak. And while on the path of healing music Naxos' 5 CD box of Dvořák's complete solo piano music, see footer image, should be in every medicine chest. There is more on classical music and the feel good factor here.


With thanks to musical healer and therapist Lyle Sanford whose recent post on his own blog sparked this article. I am sorry Lyle, but I ran out of space before I really got to grips with my intended subject of the healing power of music. But I promise there will be a second part to this post. All featured CDs were bought at retail. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
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7 comments:

Pliable said...

David Cavlovic commented via Facebook:

'The Dvorak Symphony set is definitely in my medicine cabinet. In fact, by the powers invested in me, through the auspicies of the Peroxided Order of the Sisters of St. Andrew (yes, the famous St. Andrews' Sisters), I have pronounced this set a Desert Island Disc.'

Lyle Sanford, RMT said...

Pliable - That connection you make via lineage is terrific (other than the fact it made me feel a little thick headed it had never occurred to me before ;-)

Your use of the word "mystical" has opened a path for me as well. The English major in me went to the Oxford dictionary to check etymology and it goes back to the Greek for "initiated person". And that surely goes back to the pre-Christian mystery cults.

The question is whether or not one needs lots of preliminary experience in a particular genre, i.e. to be an initiate, to enable a transcendent experience when listening to that music.

At any rate, eagerly await part two of this post.

Gavin Plumley said...

The final movement of the 6th is a life-affirming burst of sunshine... like Brandenburg 3 or the Trepak from The Nutcracker (G major anyone)? Thank you for this post.

Pliable said...

Gavin, more concatenation - I was listening to the 6th Symphony last night and can only echo what you say about the final movement.

Thank you.

Pliable said...

In connection with Lyle's comment above, István Kertész is an interesting case study in lineage - János Ferencsik, Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer et al. And the influences on Dvořák included Smetana and Brahms.

sfmike said...

Lovely to hear that it is Dvorak that's healing you. Try to get your strength back slowly. Glad you're listening to the Norns here: No More Scary Sea Interludes for Monsieur Pliable. You've been warned.

Unknown said...

They are wonderful recordings, the whole lot of them (and I've still got the vinyl). When I first heard them I thought the 6th symphony was the great masterpiece of all - and sometimes I still think that's right!