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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Symphony no. 9 in E minor, op. 95 – "From the New World", Overture: "In Nature’s Realm", op. 91, Overture: "Othello", op. 93
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Karel Ančerl

Rec. Dvořák Hall of Rudolfinum, Prague, December 1961 (opp. 95 and 91), February 1962 (op. 93)
SUPRAPHON SU 3662-2 011 [70:27]

I have already reviewed a live performance of this symphony on Aura by Ančerl and the CPO on tour in Ascona (Switzerland) in 1959. I began by remarking that Ančerl’s “New World” had taken some time to make its mark. Dismissed by Edward Greenfield as "rather a dull performance" on a BBC Radio 3 "Building a Library" programme in the mid-sixties (his favourite was Giulini), not greatly favoured by the Penguin Guide to Bargain Records and never listed in EMG’s "The Art of Record Buying", a new generation of reviewers has seen it differently. In a Gramophone "Collections" feature (September 1999), Rob Cowan gave it pride of place. My own reaction to the Ascona performance was that it was an excellent affair with plenty of brio but with a certain plain-sailing anonymity which failed to capture my imagination as did another very faithful performance recently come in from the cold, that by Nikolai Malko (particularly his earlier version with the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra, where the slow movement is quite miraculous).

I also asked the question, when reviewing the first of these Karel Ančerl Gold Editions to come my way (violin concertos by Mendelssohn, Bruch and Berg with Josef Suk) whether Ančerl, fine musician that he was, was quite a great conductor in the way Furtwängler or Toscanini were.

Well, I think I can now say that he had at least one quality of greatness; the capacity to renew himself, to probe into familiar scores and interpret them as though newly discovered. Put on paper the following statistics do not seem to amount to much, but they at least hint at what had happened between 1959 and 1961:


Ascona 1959 08:48 10:27 07:34 10:27 37:16
Studio 1961 09:06 11:29 07:48 11:13 39:36

A difference of 02:20 over a whole symphony may seem slight, yet the whole conception has changed. In 1959 it was a swift, basically conventional performance, a touch influenced by Toscanini, perhaps. In 1961 Ančerl had all the time in the world to unfold a performance in which every detail of the score is made to tell, every little note in the accompaniment has a life of its own and, while remaining completely faithful to the score, every theme has its own character. Listen to the folk-like simplicity of the famous Largo theme, a simplicity which does not exclude either deep feeling or affection (Sample 1: Track 2 from the beginning), or the lilting dance of the Scherzo’s central section, with lovely clarinet gurgles just before the reprise (Sample 2: Track 3 from 03:05), or the piquant quality of the clarinet theme in the Finale (Sample 3: Track 4 from 01:54) at a tempo which allows relaxation without losing the forward movement which has been built up.

So what had happened in those two years? It is perhaps difficult for us to realise it when Dvořák’s last symphony is carted in and out of the studios almost weekly in the western world and already was so by 1961 (Ančerl himself had recorded it in the 1950s with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra for Fontana), but to record the “New World” in Czechoslovakia in 1961 was an extraordinary responsibility for an artist. The Supraphon policy was not to flood the market with alternative versions, or to award each new Music Director of the Czech Philharmonic with a new cycle (Vacláv Neumann was the first to get this privilege, but by then concepts were changing), they made one version that was expected to stay. After the war the great Vacláv Talich was allowed to re-record the "New World" and to give his thoughts on no. 8, but not to return to nos. 6 and 7, which he had recorded on 78s. These, together with no. 5, were entrusted to Karel Šejna, another wonderful musician. There was some diffidence in those days as to whether the first four symphonies were to be considered at all (younger readers may not even know that the "New World" used to be called no. 5) and they were farmed out to the Prague Symphony Orchestra – with the implication that they were not worth the great Czech Philharmonic’s bother – under two young conductors who were to be Supraphon stalwarts for many years to come: Vacláv Neumann (nos. 1, 2 and 4) and Vacláv Smetáček (no. 3), and so the Dvořák cycle for the 1950s was complete. When a recording was needed for broadcasting it was invariably one of these, so the Talich “New World” enjoyed iconic status. However, with the advent of stereo it was time for renewal and once again the policy of sharing out the goodies was maintained. Chalabala got the symphonic poems and a couple of operas, Ančerl got the overtures and the most glittering prize of all, the new "New World". Later he also made a new 6th Symphony, while the 7th went to Zdeněk Kosler and the rest had to wait for Neumann in the grey years following the Russian invasion in 1968. As can be seen, Ančerl rose to the occasion, and the Ascona performance shows just how much work he put into it, work which he was happily able to translate into results of captivating spontaneity.

Dvořák’s three overtures “In Nature’s Realm”, “Carnival” and “Othello” were intended as a cycle, substitutive of a symphony, originally called “Nature, Life and Love”. Since Ančerl recorded all three – they came out together on LP with “My Home” as a makeweight – it seems a pity to have split them up on CD although there certainly wouldn’t have been room for “Carnival” here. Still, even at the cost of having a non-Dvořák coupling I feel the overture cycle should have been kept together. Come to think of it, the symphony would have been worth far more than the asking price even without any coupling at all. The performances are all one would expect and the recordings have acquired a mellowness which the often abrasively exciting LP originals lacked. Yet I have to confess that, comparing the first part of "In Nature’s Realm" with the LP, somehow I felt more viscerally in contact with the music than with the CD version. But I don’t want to make too much of this. Remember that you’re getting what is increasingly held to be the finest "New World" ever.

Why was it not fully recognised as such from the beginning? Well, perhaps nowadays we have no difficulty in recognising Dvořák as a great composer; time was that he was the composer of one popular symphony (this one) plus a couple more that you heard occasionally (7 and 8), a cello concerto and some Slavonic Dances. People thought that the poor man needed interpretation, interpretation that ranged from Toscanini’s dynamic thrust to the unashamed romanticism of Kubelík and Fricsay. Time has shown that Dvořák was a great composer and that Ančerl’s deep respect for the letter of the score, allied to interpretative imagination, is the best way to reveal this.

Christopher Howell


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