Dvořák’s Symphony No. 2 is the first mature statement of his style. It’s not usually thought of that way, so I should explain. It’s a genial, sunny work, full of bucolic Czech charm. The first two movements are rather long, and they’re also fairly standard fare for romantic symphonies of the time (1865), but they are overrun with great melodies. A sign of the composer to come? Hardly. He’s already here.
In the final two movements, he proves it. If I had to pin down a single moment which represents the birth of mature Dvořák, I would choose the scherzo of this symphony. It starts off as some kind of cheery rustic dance, then takes off like a rocket, then settles into a mysterious trio that manages to combine something like birdcalls and something like a bagpipe drone. Then there’s the finale, one of Dvořák’s trademark parades of melodies, with so many big tunes dramatic flourishes and jovial outbursts that they never let up for a second. The final coda is a knockout. There can be no mistaking who wrote it.
Conductor José Serebrier, in his booklet, says “The earlier symphonies show the influence of Brahms.” This is a very common claim, and a questionable one. In 1865, Brahms had written the following orchestral works: one piano concerto and two serenades. That’s it. The influence of the First Serenade is present at the beginning of this Dvořák symphony, yes, though the younger composer has clearly gone on his own exuberant way by the end. Brahms did not complete his first symphony until after Dvořák had written his fifth.
Another common remark is that the young Dvořák was influenced by Smetana. This is more true, in that they did in fact work together. When Dvořák wrote his Symphony No. 2, Smetana’s major published works were the Triumphal Symphony, three symphonic poems and a couple overtures. The Bartered Bride and any part of Ma vlast were yet to come. So when you hear this symphony, you’re not hearing a copycat; you’re hearing one of the first works in a great tradition.
Enough about the music. What about this performance? Well, it’s just about the most lavishly played recording there is, with the Bournemouth Symphony in grandest form. The rich, wide strings, full and bold brass players, and overall luxury sound help confirm the symphony’s greatness. This work deserves to be played by the finest orchestras, and now one of them has gone and proved it.
The faults, if you perceive any, lie with Serebrier, though he claims this is his favourite Dvořák symphony. Generally speaking, I find the most successful interpretations are the ones that are most rhythmically striking, emphasizing the young composer’s flair for the dance. Sharper rhythms and accents help this music along. You don’t even need to play it faster: the best-conducted performance of this symphony, by Witold Rowicki with the LSO, is speedier in the finale but much slower in the adagio. By contrast, Serebrier is unusually slow in the three Slavonic Dances, although at least they’re interesting interpretations.
I don’t mean to disparage this recording too greatly. It’s not perfect, but it is gorgeously played by the Bournemouth Symphony. If it wins more admirers for one of the most underrated symphonies of the romantic era, then three cheers.