Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95 From the New World (1893) [43:59]
New Philharmonia Orchestra/Antal Doráti
HIGH DEFINITION TAPE TRANSFERS HDCD114 [43:59]
I was surprised to see this, originally a Decca Phase Four issue, turn up in a high-end series. Serious audiophiles generally had no use for Phase Four's elaborate mike set-ups and aurally conspicuous mix-downs. In fact, on this occasion, the obtrusive "spotlighting" of instrumental groups and soloists is kept to a minimum. In the first two movements, the orchestral image is extremely clean, vividly suggesting the buzz of bows on strings, with a pronounced stereo separation. In the first movement, the back-and-forth exchanges of motifs between violins on the left and basses on the right are particularly lively. In the great Adagio, following the full-bodied opening brass chorale on the right, the English horn solo emerges quietly from the left.
The signs of engineering chicanery become more obvious after that. The horns and basses' theme, first appearing at 0:37 of the Scherzo, is normally a bit buried under all the other activity. Here, it's been tactfully punched up, to good effect. After the Trio, however, the return of the Scherzo proper at 5:05 is marked by a poorly concealed splice, and a strange electronic halo colours the final chord.
In the Finale, during the second subject recap, the recorded balance abruptly shifts to the cellos for the second phrase, at 7:20. The effect is less distracting over speakers than on headphones. Still, didn't the first violins, given the same mezzoforte dynamic, merit comparable attention on the first phrase? In this same passage, the roaming clarinet counter-theme has been brought forward, which unfortunately exposes the player's slight rhythmic insecurity.
One forgets that Antal Doráti was one of the first high-profile conductors to appear on the Phase Four label, since most of the publicity at the time, understandably, went to Leopold Stokowski. His New World is better than I remembered, although it already faced stiff competition from Reiner (RCA), Szell (Sony, originally CBS), and Bernstein (Sony, originally CBS). In his taut, dramatic account of the first movement, Doráti maintains the established pulse for the second theme, without slowing. He does relax for the flute tune, however, allowing the soloist a bit of rhythmic freedom.
Tempo relationships in the other movements are more conventional, with Doráti striking a nice balance between projecting structure and eliciting expression. The prolonged, controlled fade on the final chord, always a tricky effect, is handled well. The New Philharmonia's playing is mostly alert and attractive.
Unlike Charles Munch's account of Schumann's Spring Symphony, re-mastered in this same series (HDCD125), this release doesn't seem as essential an acquisition, except, perhaps, for Doráti die-hards or Phase Four fans. In the notes, incidentally, Doráti's given name is misspelled as "Antol", though it's spelled correctly on the disc's endpapers.
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.