DVORÁK: Serenade in E Major for Strings, Op.22. Serenade in D minor for Winds, Op.44.
Vienna Philharmonic/Myung-Whun Chung
DG 471 613 (F) (DDD) TT: 50:11

These performances look promising. Myung-Whun Chung’s straightforward musical instincts aptly suit to these unpretentious pieces. It’s nice to hear the opening of the string serenade – and, later on, that of the Larghetto – addressed directly, without bogging down in strained “expression.” The only conscious quirk occurs in that Larghetto, where Chung takes the staccato passage (2:20) doubletime, sacrificing its mystery, though the Vienna strings play it impeccably. And he tries to capture the Bohemian spirit: if the E major’s waltz misses the requisite melancholy, the D minor’s Finale bounds along exuberantly, balanced by a mournful sadness at 2:22.

Unfortunately, at least from what we hear here, Chung has a rather excitable podium manner, manifesting itself in a tendency to push the tempi unnecessarily. The string serenade suffers particularly from this misdirected impetuosity. Thus, the Scherzo tempo is slightly, but critically, rushed: a marginally slower pace, allowing for precise timing of the sixteenth-note slurs, would sound less slurry and equally motile. Similarly, the Finale digs in assertively, but the running eighth notes begin – well – running, as early as 0:10, which actually undercuts, rather than intensifying, the momentum. Subsequent “traditional” adjustments are fine, but the tempo relationships haven’t been thought out sufficiently, and the movement doesn’t cohere. Moments of forced, strident tone – in the cadences of the waltz and peak moments of the Finale – further compromise Chung’s forthright interpretation.

The wind serenade goes rather better: I suspect that Chung, like many pianist-conductors, finds string players’ style of attack foreign, and is more comfortable leading wind players. The airy, expressive clarinets evoke the authentic Bohemian atmosphere whenever they take the lead; the velvety horns have their moments as well. But Chung misjudges the inner movements. The Minuetto’s answering phrases lurch ahead on each reappearance, while the sprightly central scherzando, despite impressively accurate execution, is simply too fast for the Furiant rhythm to register. Conversely, the Andante con moto is lumpish, because Chung doesn’t shade the pulsing accompaniment figures.

If you want both serenades on one CD, Christopher Warren-Green’s performances are gorgeous (Chandos CHAN 7060). But I don’t enjoy this coupling as a program: I find the bright wind sound jarring following on the warm, mellow strings. Unfortunately, I’m not familiar with any of the current free-standing wind serenades, but I can recommend Kempe’s marvelous “Old World” handling of the string serenade at a budget price (Sony Essential Classics 46331, with Ormandy’s persuasive New World).

S.F.V. (September 2003)