Dvořák: Symphony No. 9 - Flor
Classical - Orchestral
Dvořák: Symphony No. 9 in E minor Op. 95/B.178, Ceská suita (Czech Suite) Op. 39/B.93, Muj domov (My Home), overture Op. 62/B.125a
Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra
Claus Peter Flor (conductor)
‘The most gripping Dvořák to come along in many years’ is how website Classics Today described the recently released disc with the composer’s Seventh Symphony, performed by Claus Peter Flor and the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra. This was quickly followed by the same team’s recording of Symphony No.8, and now the turn has come to Antonín Dvořák’s final work in the genre: Symphony No.9 – the ‘New World Symphony’. It was composed entirely on American soil, and the composer himself acknowledged that it ‘would not have been written this way if I had never seen America’.
Nevertheless, and contrary to what is often claimed, he also maintained that he had not used any existing material, but ‘simply written original themes embodying the peculiarities of the Indian music’, developing them ‘with all the resources of modern rhythms, harmony, counterpoint and orchestral colour.’ Those themes, and Dvořák’s use of them, have exercised an irresistible attraction on audiences, ever since the first triumphant performance in 1893 at New York’s Carnegie Hall.
The following year, Dvořák himself conducted the first Czech performance of the symphony. Perhaps to demonstrate to his compatriots in the audience that his heart nevertheless remained in his homeland, the composer included the overture Můj domov (My Home), composed some ten years previously. Part of the incidental music for a play, the overture is based on two popular songs, one of which, Kde domov můj (Where Is My Home), would later become the Czechoslovakian national anthem. On the present recording these two works frame another of Dvořák’s ‘nationalistic’ works, the light-hearted Czech Suite, consisting of five movements, all based on the dance rhythms of Bohemia, Moravia and Central Europe.
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Recorded in August 2009 (Symphony, Suite) and in September 2010 (Overture) at the Dewan Filharmonic PETRONAS, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 24/48
Producers: Hans Kipfer (Symphony, Suite); Jens Braun (Overture) (Take5 Music Production)
Sound engineers: Ingo Petry (Symphony, Suite) (Take5 Music Production); Hans Kipfer (Overture)
Recording equipment: Neumann, Schoeps and B&K microphones; DiGiCo SD7 digital mixer; Sequoia Workstation; Pyramix DSD Workstation (for SACD); B&W Nautilus 802 loudspeakers; Sennheiser headphones
Post-production: Editing: Bastian Schick
Mixing: Hans Kipfer, Jens Braun
Executive producer: Robert Suff
Review by John Miller - November 2, 2012
With Symphonies 7 and 8 already released now joined by a Number 9 which is zesty, confident and full of conviction, the combination of Claus Peter Flor and the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra has become a force to be recommend with in Dvorak. So good is the empathy between these musicians, one might think that the 'New World Symphony' would be the latest to be recorded of Dvorak's "Famous Three", but it was in fact the first (9 Aug 2009). However, we are hardly short of 'From the New World' symphony recordings, so this newcomer has to find its place in a highly competitive market.
Dvorak's Ninth is probably this planet's most popular symphony, and most orchestras have to play it so often that each performance can assume the drudgery of a War Horse. Only the most skillful conductors with enthusiastic orchestral players can really instill anything new and stimulating into the work. The Flor/MPO partnership has already laid down its cards with BIS' recordings so far. As with Flor's superb 'Ma Vlast' (Smetana: Má Vlast - Flor), you get respect for the score; clean, un-mannered playing with expressive phrasing which sounds spontaneous, attention to the clarity of orchestral textures, modulated rhythmicity, great control of dynamics and (usually) unfailing vitality. And for this symphony in particular, I was impressed by the orchestra's whiplash attack, particularly in loud tutti passages, which had me on the edge of my seat more than once.
A good example of this clean attack of the players is found in Flor's direction of the slow introduction to the first movement, where after a few quiet bars the strings are brought in at fortissimo with great attack to make stern rhetorical statements, each answered by a timpanist. Not only are the forceful strings playing as one, but the startlingly crisp drum reply is much the most pugnacious I've ever heard. This sets the tenor for the fast movements in this New World Symphony: Just by following the score scrupulously, Flor and the MPO make the most of the composer's own strongly contrasted writing in order to give the work a winningly vibrant spirit. The timpanist notably continues to make the most of his part all through the movement, adding to the rhythmic lift of the wonderfully rich and deep string basses.
It is also worth noting that Flor takes the first movement repeat. Not all conductors do, and they should. The dramatic notes leading to the exposition repeat are otherwise lost, and Dvorak's carefully planned balance of the movement is otherwise compromised. Most conductors of the "Old School" (except Klemperer) left out the repeat, but nowadays its importance is more often realized.
The emotional heart of this symphony is its Largo second movement. Originally, the tempo mark was Adagio, but on hearing the New York Philharmonic under Anton Seidil rehearse for the first performance at a very slow tempo, Dvorak approved of their expression so much that he altered the tempo to Largo. Rather than milking every emotion possible from this much-loved movement, Flor manages to find a songful intimacy and sense of inner peace and stillness which is most appealing. The movement was apparently inspired by Longfellow's poem 'The Song of Hiawatha', a story about a Native American leader and peace-maker, but how much affected the score is open to conjecture. Whatever its inspiration, the cor anglais' outstandingly beautiful opening melody (excellently played here, with much needed simplicity) has become timeless and well known world-wide.
Feather-light strings bear the second subject melody as if muted. In the central portion, which perhaps reveals Dvorak's home-sickness, a shimmering vision of his homeland is inhabited by slavic-like tunes and dance rhythms, supported by tremolo upper strings and a directed bass line. This is quite a magical sequence of textures, with details which are rarely heard on recordings; and it passes into further tender reminiscences held in gorgeous pianissimos. Before returning to the cor anglais melody, a shift in key brings in chattering bird-song and trumpet fanfares. Through all this careful observation and slightly reserved playing at times, the MPO's second movement is quite breathtaking.
Flor's Scherzo ranges from pert and playful to noisy and explosive, never loosing energy. I was reminded of a Bruckner scherzo (perhaps the closest that Dvorak comes to his composer). The timpanist reappears to make very clear Dvorak's playful emulation of the drum interjections in Beethoven's Ninth, which become more noticeable than usual. Otherwise, the joyful, lively Furiant goes with real swing in its tuttis, where the antiphonal passing around of the tune between instruments, very well recorded, is most effective.
"Con fuoco" is Dvorak's instruction for the Finale, which re-deploys the first movement themes. Flor and the MPO take him at his word, weilding saturated tone and impetuous attack for an explosion of sound and tone colour. The symphonic and structural aspect of the movement is well presented, and Flor's strong sense of forward movement and flexible rhythm avoids the four-square, rhythmically stolid bombastic style which lesser conductors are prone to. The MPO brass choir, including the horns, are magnificent here, again helped by the engineers producing pin-sharp seating positions of all the instruments to maximise the spatial appreciation of Dvorak's score. The famous touch on the cymbal, brought in (just before the final coda begins) by Dvorak for the first and only time in the whole work, provides a hiss just like an indrawn breath before unleashing the flashy coda. Fischer's cymbal is rather too prominent, drawing more attention than needed.
At the end of the Finale, Dvorak makes a very clear statement of his feelings about the whole symphony. After the triple-forte brass-laden climax triumphantly sounds the major key, there is an instant's silence before the last chord, which is totally unexpected. Strings, trombones and tympani play only a short note, but the wind, trumpets and horns play a long fermata ("lunga corona" - held for quite long), at the same time making a diminuendo from fff to ppp. This is quite a devilish trick on the composer's part, as holding a note steady and in tune while shaping a reduction in volume is a very challenging task to bring off cleanly. Unfortunately, the MPO doesn't do it very well; while making an appropriate diminuendo, the tone is unsteady and even wobbles somewhat in pitch, sounding like vinyl or tape wow. Dvorak's desired effect was that the lingering sadness of that final chord indicated that however joyful the symphony may have seemed, it is all underlain by darker emotions. The wobbles draw more attention to themselves than to the composer's message.
Kertesz and the LSO have a similar difficulty in holding smooth notes; Dausgaad's Swedish Chamber Orchestra (Dvořák: Symphonies 6 & 9 - Dausgaard) manage quite a smooth fermata, while Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra avoid the problem by not doing the requisite diminuendo. Perhaps Fischer's concertising instinct about the final moment of the symphony bringing an audience to its feet (and not its knees) took over. Without the diminuendo, however, the last chord, shorn of many instruments, is left hanging uncertainly in space.
In the face of an otherwise very convincing "New World" from Flor and his orchestra, I would suggest that this not be a cause for disregarding a performance which does indeed have some fresh ideas.
This disc does not just carry the Ninth Symphony, but several other Dvorak works. The Czech Suite of 1879 came after the first set of Slavonic Dances, at a time when Czech composers were all responding to a Nationalist approach in the Arts. It is an ingratiating orchestral suite of Baroque and Early Classical form in five movements, mainly of dance type. Dvorak varies the scoring from movement to movement (there is no heavy brass, but horns in three movements and trumpets with timpani in the final Furiant).
Despite using the resources of a symphony orchestra in a large auditorium, Flor, his players (and the recording engineers) make this piece sound very intimate. Still not often programmed, it has many delights, which are extracted and displayed here with winning spontaneity. A particular highlight is the fourth movement Romance, in which an exquisite dialogue between cor anglais and flute offers a preview of the New World symphony's Largo, and it is one of Dvorak's most lovely and delicate pieces.
The Overture 'My Home' dates from 1881-2, and is part of Dvorak's incidental music for a play by Samuel Samberk about one Joseph Tyl, a former actor, poet and dramatist. It utilises two songs about Tyl that were well-known, the second of which became the Czech National Anthem in 1918. Perhaps not the strongest of Dvorak's set of Overtures, it is nonetheless full of Nationalistic drive which never becomes bombastic, as under Flor's baton it becomes surprisingly light and athletic. A nice programme link is that 'My Home' was played along with the first Czech performance of 'The New World' in 1894 conducted by Dvorak during a visit home. He was anxious to convince the audience that despite the rewards of his long American sojourn, his heart was still with his homeland.
Despite this programme being recorded in the Dewan Philharmonic auditorium (Kuala Lumpur) in sessions a year apart, the engineers have produced very similar sound. The auditorium itself, despite its volume, does not have a distinctive ambiance, although it is far from dry. Its acoustic is well demonstrated in the orchestras front-back perspective, which is very well-defined. The sound-stage is somewhat wider than on the previous discs in this Dvorak series, and the clear seating separation of all the orchestral departments adds much to the very fine and natural concert sound in both 5.0 multichannel and stereo captures. The 3-language booklet has very good notes about the music, and a general introduction to the symphony which ousts some common misconceptions about the American musical materials alleged to have been used by the composer.
Despite my minor issue with the last note of the symphony, this is another very fine Dvorak disc from well-versed and fully committed artists. The symphony itself certainly deserves consideration for a collection, being up with some of the best, and the supplementary pieces add to those from the other symphony discs issued so far.
Copyright © 2012 John Miller and HRAudio.net
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