THE MUSIC OF DVORAK is one of the most wholesome of addictions, and one that no one in his right mind would ever want to shake off, but even the most solidly hooked must find the first of the new discs listed here a disappointment, with material more appealing for its curiosity value than its musical strength.
Dvorak composed his cantata The American Flag, which does not seem to have been recorded before, shortly after he arrived in New York in the fall of 1892 to head the National Conservatory. The dated text by Joseph Rodman Drake (1795-1820) is campy at best, and in his setting of it Dvorak seems to have bent over backward to avoid being himself. The result is something like a Gilbert-and-Sullivan spoof of Handel.
This impression can't be laid to the preformance, which seems to be an extremely sympathetic one (though one may wonder why this particular recording site was chosen when choruses are available elsewhere whose native language is the one sung here). The recording itself is less satisfactor - frequently strident and a good deal more constricted than one expects nowadays.
The sound is smoother on the other side of the disc, but the American Suite, which Dvorak orchestrated from his piano original, is pretty thin stuff, hardly what anyone would expect from such a master at the peak of his powers, and is no more impressive here than in the old Supraphon mono of blessed memory. Well, even Dvorak wasn't perfect, and, for all the shortcomings of these two works, this is a disc the addicted will not want to forego.
Quite at the other end of the esthetic spectrum is Kubelik's marvelous pairing of the last two of Dvorak's four tone poems after Erben's ballads. None of the earlier recordings of The Golden Spinning-Wheel - not even the old Beecham on 78s - has so brilliantly realized the work's magical blend of fairy-tale fantasy and folkish exuberance and Kubelik's handling of The Wood Dove is at least a match for any other version. His orchestra has never sounded better.
Mehta's impressive credentials as a Dvorak interpreter were presented a decade ago in his recording of the Seventh Symphony with the Israel Philharmonic, and his account of The Wood Dove is hardly less distinguished than Kubelik's. The G-major Symphony in his hands, however, manages to be incredibly lifeless; in the face of the inspired realizations of the work under Kubelik, Kertesz, Walter and Szell, this one simply can't be recommended.
Colin Davis makes a very strong showing in his new recording of the greatest of Dvorak's symphonies; it is a version fellow addicts will happily add to the four or five already on their shelves - elegantly molded, thoroughly unsentimentalized, superbly played and crisply (if not sumptuously) recorded. For those who wish only a single recording of this work, though, those conducted by Pierre Monteux (London STS-15157) and Vaclav Neumann (Vanguard SU-7) still offer more pleasure than any others, and both are on half-price labels.