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Rob Cowan
Gramophone, February 2011

Neumann conducts a muted Mass and a no-holds-barred New World Symphony

Two very different Václav Neumanns are on offer here, and so are two very different sets of production values. The Glagolitic Mass was taped at Prague’s handsome Rudolfinum (or “Dvořák Hall”), with good angle shots of the chorus and head-on views of the generally excellent soloists. “This must be the Eighties,” exclaimed my visiting daughters in unison, their prompt being Gabriela Beňačková’s gladiatorial shoulder-pads. Too true—1987, to be exact, and although the visual production is fairly good, the sound quality is a touch muted, even a little distorted at times, not at all what you need when Janáček’s primary colours are firing off in heady profusion (and not what you expect to hear from the Rudolfinum). In other respects it’s a worthy production. Neumann’s direction of the Prague Philharmonic Choir and Czech Philharmonic Orchestra is patient, solid and sensitive to detail, especially in the Sanctus, but the score’s defining quickfire alternations of mood and texture are sold significantly short. Even Jan Hora’s organ solo, although well played, sounds comparatively cautious. So, only a qualified success for the Mass. However, the 1990 New World Symphony that opens the DVD is something else again: different orchestra, different venue (the Alte Oper, Frankfurt), different world. For a start, the sound is far clearer and more dynamic than it was for the Prague concert and Neumann himself seems infinitely more engaged. He smiles, grimaces and gesticulates energetically at the climaxes, and, for the intimate close of the Largo, he even looks as if he’s on the brink of tears.

Although comparatively weighty and broadly paced, it’s very much a no-holds-barred sort of performance: strongly accented, with impressive keenness of attack in all departments (the timpanist has a whale of a time) and a plethora of intense facial expressions that suggests just how involved the players are. In other words, it’s the sort of experience we’ve come to expect from the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, total commitment multiplied many times over. Happily the cameras capture it all with admirable clarity and a laudable sense of visual balance. I loved it and will be hanging on to the disc for its sake alone.

Robert Benson, January 2011

This DVD featuring Václav Neumann (1920–1995) is a reminder of the gentle but masterful conductor who played such an important role in Czech music in the 20th Century. After leading the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra from 1964 until 1968, he became conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, of which he was principal conductor until 1990. This DVD begins with a glorious performance of Dvořák’s most popular symphony, a work Neumann recorded with the Czech Philharmonic in both 1972 and 1981. This performance was recorded in Frankfurt’s Alte Oper in 1990 magnificently played by the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, a large ensemble of virtuoso players. No details are provided about circumstances of the concert; it’s unfortunate more of it isn’t included. Neumann also recorded many works of Janáček, including two operas, and here we have a resplendent reading of Missa Glagolitica recorded in the Rufolfinum in 1987, with Neumann directing his beloved Czech Philharmonic and a superb quartet of soloists. Video quality is excellent throughout, clearest in the Dvořák, and audio is equally fine. There is fine presence throughout; I doubt that the Janáček is true surround sound, but it satisfies in its resonant way. You also might wish to investigate Neumann’s DVD of Dvořák’s Stabat Mater recorded in Prague in 1989.

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