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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95 (From the New World) (1893) [44:05]
Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104 (1894) [42:30]
Mario Brunello (cello)
Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Roma/Antonio Pappano
rec. in concert, Sala Santa Cecilia, Auditorium Parco della Musica, Rome, November 2011 (symphony), January 2012
EMI CLASSICS 9141022 [44:05 + 42:30]

The repertoire hardly needed duplicating, but this issue tenuously maintains the once-common "documentary" practice of recording, mostly in abeyance as the major labels have retrenched. Antonio Pappano is an established, high-profile conductor whose work merits careful documentation under controlled conditions and in good sound ... and, no, mp3 files and YouTube videos do not qualify as "good-sounding"! It's easier to get the measure of an artist in well-known, rather than unfamiliar, music. So another New World and Cello Concerto come down the chute, clumsily harnessed into a two-disc set.
 
First off, one notices the alert playing the conductor draws from the St. Cecilia players. They respond to his direction attentively, with an involvement that could shame a business-as-usual virtuoso orchestra. The strings are well-blended, winds and brass are colorful and firm, and the ensemble sonority is full-throated. Punctuating chords are incisive, even slashing, as at the end of the symphony's Scherzo.
 
Interpretively, Pappano takes nothing for granted in the New World, phrasing with purpose, eliciting vivid, expressive colours. The slow introduction is beautiful and affecting; in the body of the first movement, Pappano infuses the music with a rhythmic buoyancy along with the customary forward drive, carrying the music aloft, keeping it vital.
 
A similar buoyancy makes for striking passages in the two middle movements as well. The great Largo sounds freshly considered, solemn and expressive; a nice "lift" underlines the unsettled quality of the middle section, and the chirping woodwind solos at 8:38 are unusually evocative. Similarly, the unexceptionable Scherzo offers an unusually lilting, light-textured rendition of the Trio, bringing out its charm.
 
The Scherzo's reprise, a bit more nervous than the first go-round, suggests that, in this concert, fatigue may have been setting in. This impression is unfortunately confirmed in the finale, where much of the playing is edgy and slightly too loud, compromising Pappano's unusually cogent, seamless rendering of the movement, and illustrating why studio sessions are sometimes worth the extra expense.
 
The Cello Concerto's orchestral introduction begins firmly enough, but momentum begins to falter as early as the first tutti, and Pappano fusses uncharacteristically with the juicy lyrical theme at 2:20. It turns out that he's simply being a good colleague: soloist Mario Brunello fusses similarly with that same theme. Brunello's instincts are musical, but his way of straining for expression can lose the forest for the trees, with some passages nearly coming to a standstill. Similarly, the Finale simply seems to go on too long, although Pappano's taut coda rouses the audience to a nice hand, anyway. Brunello plays capably, though his tone can turn dry or thin in faster passages. It mightn't be fair to expect the whopping sound of a Rostropovich (EMI), but the vibrant lyricism of a Fournier (DG) or Gendron (Philips), at least, might have been within Brunello's reach.
 
While the New World - or most of it - gave me much pleasure, this album does not rate as a "basic library" choice for either work. Still, I'm pleased that Pappano is getting to "show his stuff" in symphonic works as well as in opera.
 
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.

See also review by John Whitmore

Masterwork Index: Symphony 9 ~~ Cello concerto