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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 (Symphony No.9), 14-15, 17 June 2007 (Variations), Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Baltimore, USA. DDD
NAXOS 8.570714 [64:44]
Experience Classicsonline

This recording, the first fruits of Marin Alsop’s new post as Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and the first of three promised live versions of Dvořák symphonies, has already received widespread acclaim. Not least, has it been proclaimed Bargain of the Month by my colleague Bob Briggs – see review. In a sense, I am merely gilding the lily in echoing his words of praise. If her sojourn in Baltimore is to be as productive as this, it may even eclipse her very successful period with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.
I thought the opening just a shade tentative – maybe those reviews had led me to expect perfection from the start – but what at first seemed a hesitant approach soon established itself as sensitivity on the part of conductor and orchestra alike. There’s some really hushed and reverential playing in places, yet with plenty of fire when called for. Passages which I had thought merely wistful emerge from this interpretation with a greater sense of their delicacy.
By the end of the first movement I was completely won over and nothing afterwards dispelled that feeling. Music which has become hackneyed through (ab)use in commercials, like the ‘far away and long ago’ theme in the second movement emerge fresh in this performance.
The Scherzo really scampers along and the Finale is equally fine. BB refers to the catharsis which Alsop finds in the close of the Finale. I know that this will not be to all tastes but it rings true. The storm clouds are there well before that conclusion for those who listen – and Alsop makes me hear them as I’ve never heard them before. This is no merely exultant Finale – there are thoughts here that lie too deep for tears.
I’ve seen one blog which characterises this performance as mediocre, comparing it adversely with Naxos’s earlier version by Stephen Gunzenhauser; it doesn’t mention the ending, but I suspect that was in the writer’s mind, together with the slight tentativeness which I noted at the beginning. This performance is, in fact, anything but mediocre. I haven’t heard Gunzenhauser’s New World, but his Naxos versions of the earlier symphonies, (very) serviceable as they are, are left standing by this Alsop Ninth.
I first got to know this symphony as a teenager in a performance by Charles Groves and the Liverpool Phil in my home town of Blackburn – free admission in return for programme selling and ushering – and that performance, which knocked my socks off at the time, has remained my benchmark ever since, even over and above the first LP version which I bought – a rather swishy Supraphon pressing of Karel Ančerl’s classic performance. The other Groves performance which has remained with me ever since provided my introduction to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade. I don’t think that even Groves dug this deeply into the music.
Hitherto my version of choice, matching that Groves benchmark, has been that of Rafael Kubelík in its DG Privilege incarnation with the Scherzo Capriccioso; it’s currently available on Australian Eloquence for around £5 (469 623 2) coupled with Smetana’s Vltava, or on DG Originals for around £8.50 (447 412 2), more expensive but also more generously coupled with the Eighth Symphony. After that Supraphon LP, I owned both of Isvan Kertesz’s Decca recordings – he, too remains a strong contender: the complete symphonies on 430 046 2 (around £9), 8 and 9 on 475 7517 (around £8.50), or nos. 5, 7, 8 & 9 on Eloquence 467 472 2 (also around £8.50).
My allegiance to Kubelík is not dented. His grasp of the music still seems to me intuitively correct and the ADD recording wears its age well – but henceforth this Alsop version will provide an excellent alternative. If push comes to shove – and I do have a rule not to keep two versions of any piece of music – I’m not sure which one would have to go. All I can say is that Alsop has shown me aspects of the music which I had never noticed before.
I’m pleased that Naxos have included the Symphonic Variations and that they have been placed first – fine as they are, I wouldn’t want to hear them, or anything else, straight after the New World Symphony. This is first-class music, too little known; the performance here should go some way to redressing that neglect.
The recording is first-rate throughout. I could have wished that the download version had been made available at 320kbps, as many of the Chandos-sourced recordings on classicsonline are; better still would have been to offer a lossless version – wma or wav. How about it in future? 192kbps gives a very good approximation of the original CD sound –it’s all that BBC Radio 3 offers, at the best of times, with 160kbps when Test Match Special is on. With faster broadband connections now, most people would prefer the extra fidelity. Give it a try; if you find the sound inadequate – and I certainly didn’t – remember that the CD is not much more expensive.
The full original booklet comes with the download. It’s not quite so convenient as what Chandos provide with their downloads – single pages rather than a 2-page spread – but it’s very nice to have it. Cutting and stapling is inevitably a little fussy: again, if you can’t be bothered, buy the CD. The notes in the booklet are of Keith Anderson’s usual quality, though the English version stops one word short of completion before going on to describe the Baltimore SO – you need to read the German translation for the missing word ‘Stimmung’.
The cover is tastefully designed, as usual, though surely Naxos with their seemingly inexhaustible supply of 18th and 19th-century illustrations could have produced something contemporary with the New World Symphony.
Whichever way you acquire this recording, I cannot imagine that you will be seriously disappointed. Even if you have a favourite account of the symphony, do try this one.
Brian Wilson

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