Dvorak: Symphony No. 1 - Bosch
Coviello Classics COV 91718
Classical - Orchestral
Dvorak: Symphony No. 1
Review by John Miller - August 23, 2017
Dvorak (1841-1904) composed his first symphony early in 1865. From then on, the work was embroiled in a series of remarkable stages in its fate. Dvorak immediately sent the MS to a competition in Leipzig, but he heard no more, and he assumed it had been lost. He must have given up hope in making any reconstruction of the classical Symphony 1 in C minor and began the pastoral Symphony 2 in D major. Dvorak is said to have briefly remarked: “Nothing. I just sat down and wrote a new symphony.”
It wasn’t until 1923, nineteen years after Dvorak’s death, that the score suddenly appeared in the legacy of a Charles University professor, Dr Rudolf Dvorak (no relation). He had apparently purchased it in a second-hand bookshop in Leipzig back in 1882. He died in 1920, not having told Dvorak or anyone else about his posession. The Manuscript was handed over to the composer's son but wasn't brought into the music world until 1923, and the first performance was even later, in 1936 in Brno - but with some editing. The First Symphony was not published until 1961. The first complete recording was made in 1966 as part of the highly-regarded set of the Symphonies conducted by István Kertész with the London Symphony Orchestra.
A further mysterious oddity in the Symphony 1 saga is that many modern scores have a subtitle "The Bells of Zlonice" which doesn’t appear in the autograph score. Zlonice was the town in which Dvorak began his musical career at 13 and the church bells kept him awake at night. However, it is uncertain if this subtitle was ever authorised by Dvorak himself.
Instead, the orchestral sound of the bells of the church in Zlonice is heard in a stylised form in the very beginning of the symphony as a succession of striking chords from the entire orchestra at forte and the four horns plus bassoons play a tolling Maestoso first subject. Then Dvorak introduces a gentler bell-like rhythmical figure (ding-dong) which first accompanies the main subject in the first movement, and later appears in the following three movements; it then opens out fully in the coda of the final movement. There is also a five-note rhythmic motto in all four movements, by three timpani. What is now called 'cyclical form' is unusual for 1865, although it seems that Schumann had the same idea, later developed by Liszt.
The first movement of Symphony No. 1 required the traditional repeats of its sonata form, often omitted in concert and records. Marcus Bosch, of course, takes the opportunity to subtly change the repeats in various tensions or emotions by relative changes in dynamics and emphases on the contents of Dvorak's multi-theme units and rhythmic building blocks. This results in a time for the first movement of 17:24, giving an overall disc time of 51:09. Some listeners might be disappointed that, given that in the other discs in the series, there are one or two "fillers".
The C minor First Movement (Maestoso) soon changes to the major, and the movement has tremendous drive, giving way to simple melodies and harmonies. There are some interesting textures; an outstanding one is of the strings playing a slowly changing tremolo, above which floats a lovely melody. Tremolos like this occur in most of the movements, but I never noticed this to be so attractively played on other recordings of the First Symphony. This is undoubtedly a result of Marcus Bosch's thoughtful interpretations.
Without trombones for the movement, the beautiful second movement (Adagio di molto) begins, like Dvorak's Third, Sixth and Seventh, with a plaintive woodwind chorale, and proceeds with free variations of the chorale with marchlike fanfares on the rest of the brass. Most of Dvorak's other slow movements have a similar constitution.
The scurrying Scherzo (Allegretto) begins rather gently, as if to take notice of the Adagio. It is the only scherzo of Dvorak's symphonies not to be in triple time, and instead the double time often feeds some witty march-like sections, textures which also appear in the other symphonic scherzos by Dvorak. Sets of syncopations provide some amusement as they are tossed around the orchestra.
The Finale (Allegro animato) begins with a melodic shape called a main "mirror theme", a tune of two short figures, the second of which is a mirror of the first. One goes up, the second goes down. Towards the end, a version of the primary theme from the first movement representing the Zlonice bells. The orchestration, particularly the excitingly scored brass, give this movement much colour, added to by the piccolo. (The four horns scored on the first movement were reduced to two for the rest of the symphony).
In the Finale, there are many crescendos which are based on themes played over and over again, acquiring more instruments and higher dynamics to raise the tension. The young Tchaikovsky similarly over-worked repetitions in his first three symphonies. However, though, Bosch gives as much character as can be done, marching on to the joyful final bars. I must mention one unusual playful surprise by Dvorak, a few moments from the end of the Finale. At the end of one thematic cycle, there was a silence for a few seconds, followed by a sudden, sharp BANG on a timpano; silence - then BANG again and music then carried on as if nothing had happened.
Coviello Classics is making a full set of Dvorak Symphonies, with only No. 2 left. This is important, as the recording is made while live in the Meisterhalle Nürnberg, and there are very few other series are recorded in concert, especially in SACD.
Mielke Bergfeld's Musikproduktion company are well known for their expertise in producing excellent concert captures with their own specially equipped control room and recording van. The lovely bloom of the Meistersinger Hall sounds fine in stereo, but it comes to life in the 5.0 multichannel track, where the sonic location of every instrumental group in a wide and deep perspective makes for a very realistic recording. The transparency of sound is quite remarkable and the stage depth of players is greater than usual, where an orchestra in concert is usually wider than deep. Brass in particular make a glorious sound with plenty of room between each player, allowing for the instrumental acoustics to merge and bloom; the strings are warm yet very clear. The Woodwind have a subtle set of sonic characters, common where orchestras have instruments made "locally".
From this long-lost work, Dvorak gained practical experience as a writer of orchestral music, showing his knowledge of scoring and an extraordinary set of superb ideas which carried on to his Ninth Symphony. Marcus Bosch has full understanding of how important Dvorak's Symphony No.1 is to the writing of the other eight symphonies. With its exhilarating sound and an interpretation which brings much extra light to the First, I greatly enjoyed this and I hope you will too.
Copyright © 2017 John Miller and HRAudio.net