Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95 (From the New World) (1893) [45:16]
Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Symphony No. 2 (1943) [23:00]
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra/Paavo Järvi
rec. Music Hall, Cincinnati, March 2005
TELARC CD-80616 [68:16]

I realize this sort of coupling - piggybacking a less-known work alongside a related favorite - has become more or less standard practice in record company A&R departments, but in this particular instance, I’m not sure it works. It’s hard to imagine newcomers attracted to the New World’s Romantic rhetoric responding to Martinů’s intermittent astringencies. Meanwhile, collectors wanting to try the Martinů symphony will already be choking on multiple versions of the Dvořák perennial. 

Still, some discographic interest inheres in the Martinů, recordings of the composer’s music outside the Czech lands remaining comparatively rare. The Second Symphony is typical of the composer's symphonic writing, alternating accessible, melodic passages with more intricate, angular ones. Of incidental interest is Martinů’s use of the piano in his orchestra, not only as percussive reinforcement of accents in the style of other twentieth-century symphonists, but also as surprisingly liquid chordal filler in the scherzo.

In the first movement, the waltzy rhythmic underpinning of the opening theme persists through the more complex material later. The second movement, Andante moderato, begins in a quiet, searching mood which is reminiscent of the contemporaneous American symphonists. The atmosphere is somehow maintained as the writing becomes more dissonant, more or less evanescing to a close. The irregular rhythmic vitality of the third movement, Poco allegro, is unusually infectious; a sparkling series of solo woodwind scales at 1:53 is fetching. The finale is busy and ambitious, yet its harmonic contours and strutting syncopations sound oddly "American" - suggesting, at times, Gershwin’s American in Paris!

The Cincinnati orchestra copes well with what was for them, I imagine, an unfamiliar idiom. The sonority is clear and pleasing at the outset, and in the more lightly scored passages, but the fuller textures sound thick and cluttered. As usual with Martinů, it's hard to tell whether the scoring or the playing might be at fault - a bit of both, I suspect.

One could be forgiven for forgetting Järvi’s previous recording of the Dvořák, a darkly Slavic interpretation available for about five minutes, along with the rest of Intersound's Royal Philharmonic Collection. The present performance is more mainstream Bohemian in manner, though I'd have to say the first movement doesn't work now. At the start, Järvi takes care to bind the single-bar motifs into larger groups, making longer phrases that hold the listener's attention; the horns' principal theme similarly "arches" over the barlines. But the conductor's conception is less "New World" than Old World, with pronounced differences in tempo among the three themes, each slower than the one before. The famous flute theme crawls, burdened further when the strings take it up by a little agogic; the transitions are awkward, and sound random, the tempo not relaxing in quite the same place each time.

The other movements are more conventionally paced and proportioned. In the slow movement, the great English horn solo is beautiful, but coördination is approximate in the more agitated second section, where the entries don’t quite line up. Järvi makes a point of varying the articulations in the Scherzo’s Trio, to good effect, though he has to play through some of the composer’s rests to do it; and the Finale’s various episodes and tempos are gathered into a coherent through-line, for an exciting finish.

The sound is clear enough; the slightly fuzzy orchestral image, notably in the Martinů, is more likely a product of mildly imprecise coördination among the enthusiastic Cincinnati players, rather than any shortcoming in Telarc’s normally exemplary engineering.

It's hard to recommend this disc - granted, the Martinů isn't otherwise readily available, still it isn't quite enough of an inducement to take on yet another inconsistent New World. It's worth seeking out the various Martinů symphonies in Vacláv Neumann's Czech Philharmonic cycle (Supraphon); there are good modern recordings of the Dvořák, I'm sure, but the old analog accounts of Kertész (Decca), Szell (Sony -- but I've not heard the CD processing), Kubelik/Berlin (DG), and Reiner (RCA) are still hard to beat.

Stephen Francis Vasta 

see also review by Rob Barnett