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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841–1904)
Symphonic Variations, op.78 (1877) [22:48]
Symphony No.9 in E minor, From the New World, op.95 (1893) [41:56]
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop
rec. live 8-10 June 2007 (op.95), 14-15, 17 June 2007 (op.78), Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Baltimore, USA. DDD
NAXOS 8.570714 [64:44]
Experience Classicsonline


The very first time I saw Marin Alsop operating in the flesh was in 1999 when she conducted the BBC Symphony in a BBC invitation concert at Maida Vale where, amongst other things, she conducted a stunning account of the New World Symphony. Having a drink with some of the players after the show I made the comment that, "she really made you so-and-sos sweat!" and to a man they replied "and did she!" And that, surely, is the strength of Marin Alsop, she makes you play and she brings out the very best in the musicians.

This is a wonderful disk – and it’s the first of three Dvořàk CDs promised from these performers. The Symphonic Variations is a work which, for too many years, I dismissed as insignificant. How wrong one can be! Alsop directs a straight forward account, pointing the many felicitous details of orchestration, enjoying the humour of the waltz episode, building a marvellous climax in the middle, with the lugubrious trombones to the fore, and generally making the music smile. The fugal finale is especially well handled, the various strands entering clearly and precisely and no one voice is allowed to dominate. Overall, Alsop makes the work much more cohesive that it normally sounds, the variations flowing effortlessly from one to the next and the gradual development of the simple theme can easily be followed. This performance is a triumph!

A sensible fifteen second pause separates the Variations from the Symphony – and might I point out how good it is to have the major work appearing as the major work on the disk and not being followed by some filler. You certainly don’t want anything following this account of the New World.

The slow introduction to the first movement begins almost noncommittally but with the, forthright, entrance of the drums Alsop starts to screw up the tension into the ensuing Allegro which is full of fire and passion. The second subject, played most beautifully, is joyous and playful, with no slackening of tempo. Then the exposition is repeated, as it should be. The development section is full of drama, very exciting trombones here, Alsop was right to smile encouragingly at them, sorry Richard Strauß, but here it’s essential! A marvellous reprise and, with a slight increase in tempo, the coda is quite breath taking.

The slow movement is very well handled. The sonorous opening brass chords build to a small climax before the strings take over and the cor anglais sings its famous tune. Alsop seems to allow the player to take charge here and she follows her – I assume that for this fine playing we have to thank Jane Marvine. Alsop keeps the accompaniment to a minimum and all for the better, allowing the great theme to really sing. The animated section which follows is full of expectation, with the muted strings wistful but passionate, the woodwind plaintive. The central dance section, with its reminiscence of the first movement’s first theme, is well placed within the context of the movement, and the quiet coda is quiet beautiful.

Twelve seconds of glorious silence separate this reverie from the vivacious scherzo – what sensible breaks Naxos have provided us with! The scherzo is played with such verve and energy that it positively races along, and the nationalistic dance of the trio is suitably buoyant and bucolic. After the repeat of the scherzo there’s another reminder of the first movement’s main theme and Alsop senses that there’s something malevolent about this repeat – I’ve always felt this – after all, what the hell is it doing here of all places?

The finale follows almost without pause and it’s tense and urgent, Alsop keeping the momentum and strength of the music as it becomes more manic – OK this is a personal view but why, if he’s so happy in the USA, does Dvořàk seem to become almost out of control in this movement? Half way through he sits back and we get the Czech countryside again, which is interrupted by the first movement’s theme, yet again(!) before a terse coda where the opening chords of the slow movement are screamed out by the brass against a barrage of drums to be followed by a huge climax where the opening themes of the first and fourth movements are played in counterpoint by trumpets and trombones against agonized chords, leaving us with an insubstantial open chord on the woodwind, fading to nothing. It’s a strange ending for so forthright a work but I have always had a feeling that, because of how Dvořàk treats his themes here, he didn’t really enjoy his stay in America, despite what we are led to believe, and I feel that perhaps Alsop has the same feeling. Certainly she plays this ending as some kind of catharsis, an ending, certainly, but one which, perhaps, is filled with regret, dissatisfaction or dismay.

The recording is very bright and clear, with a wide perspective on the full orchestra – it especially captures the brass beautifully. The balance is superb and the dynamic range huge – the final chords of the slow movement were so quiet I could barely hear them, but if I’d pumped up the volume the climaxes would have been overbearing!

We know, from her recordings of the Brahms Symphonies, for Naxos, that Alsop is totally at home in this romantic repertoire and this performance simply confirms her position as an interpreter of music of this period. This performance is shattering in its power and urgency and Alsop brings a new view to this, supposedly, well known work. All in all this is an essential addition to any collection and it sits very well beside both the Berlin Philharmonic with Kubelik and the LSO with Kertesz. A real must have!

Bob Briggs


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