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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Symphony No. 9 in E minor (1893) ‘From the New World’ [42:32]
Carnival Overture (1891) [9:21]
Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR/Sir Roger Norrington
rec. live Liederhalle, Beethovensaal, Stuttgart, 2008
SWR MUSIC SWR19515CD [52:56]

These live recordings from 2008 are a mid-price reissue of the full-price Hännsler HAEN 93251 disc issued in 2009. Dvořák’s symphony From the New World makes me think that if he had been composing in the 20th century he would have written film music, so immediate and dramatic it is. Roger Norrington with his Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra vividly reveals these elements straightaway: a hushed opening as of a calm evening, but soon a horn alarm and in a little while fortissimo strings, timpani and wind in turn lead to a close of the introduction which is the confrontation of terror. Yet come the movement’s main body Allegro molto, the tremolo violins and violas are only a very soft flutter beneath two horns proclaiming the fanfare-like first theme which is also the idée fixe for the work. It is not the beloved as in Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, but I suggest an adventurer, perhaps Dvořák himself in his new surroundings. Norrington’s later belligerent presentation shows him as a forthright, battling one too. A symphony’s second theme is usually soft-hearted: this one’s, on flute and oboe (tr. 1, 2:48), is nervy and animated. You feel it is just there to ratchet up the tension. The third theme, from just solo flute (3:48), despite being soft, is the response of assurance, but not just a cosy one, when the violins graciously accept it and add a swell in dynamic at the end of the second phrase, Norrington is careful to show them strutting in pride. Those are the key elements of the movement whose development tosses the opening of the idée fixe through alien environments while Norrington’s clarity in displaying Dvořák’s skilful variation of accompaniment, such as the violins sighing quite sweetly below the second theme’s recapitulation, keeps the tension and interest alive. I do, however, feel the trumpet fanfares in the coda should be clearer.

My comparison is the 1989 studio recording by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and Jiří Bělohlávek (Supraphon SU 3639-2 031), because it is in the same price range and has the same coupling. It is also closer to Dvořák’s ‘old world’ than Stuttgart, which is worth considering if you feel, as I do, that much of the work is about Dvořák’s awareness of similar emotions whatever his surroundings and finding memories of home in them. For whatever reason, I find Bělohlávek’s first movement more moving. He starts the introduction more dreamily; the horn call is loud but not threatening and the sense of quiet in the one and a half beat’s rest following reassuring. This makes the arrival of the fortissimo more sudden, and you are then swept through this unprepared experience. But in the main Allegro comfort is soon restored with a jolly first theme and not, like Norrington, later belligerence but a staunch confidence. Bělohlávek’s second theme is not nervy, but dance-like, ensuring the intricacy of this folksy material is clear. He does this by a slight slowing at the beginning, a gear change. Some may dislike it, but it works for me and makes for a natural progression in mood to the third theme. The question of tempo also arises in that theme: how much emphasis is placed on the staccato quaver before the minim at the end of the first phrase which also, in its violins’ repeat comes at the apex of a crescendo and diminuendo. I have already admired how Norrington makes a proud strut of this. Bělohlávek gives it less emphasis and space so the joy of it emerges more spontaneously. Bělohlávek does have one disadvantage in that, unlike Norrington, he does not make the exposition repeat. Had he done so, he would have been a little more measured than Norrington, timing at 12:25 to Norrington’s 11:49. More important, however, is the inner fire I feel from Bělohlávek that I do not from Norrington. That might be because he achieves more continuity of shaping, for instance in a merrier, more exciting development in which the first theme’s adventures seem lovably quixotic. Bělohlávek’s trumpets also shine out in the coda.

The slow movement (tr. 2) is the longest, even if not by much, and has the most memorable tune of the symphony in its opening theme on the cor anglais. Why does it resonate so much? I would suggest because it conveys conviction about, and thanksgiving for, a way of life. Norrington adds to the expectation in its introduction by, at the outset, making a swell on the opening two chords and then the second two chords, when one is only marked on the third two chords heading to the sustained chord. But I like his treatment of the theme itself: fluent, simple, humble, even innocent, with the dynamics understated and followed by sensitive commentary from the strings before the cor anglais returns. There are more themes: the second (4:28) Norrington presents somewhat agitated, like a storm about to brew. It becomes (5:00) an aching theme from oboe and clarinet of Mendelssohnian soulfulness, climaxing with a cry of anguish. The outcome of this, the third theme (6:37), is brooding and doleful. Norrington faces it head on but we are unlikely to remember it because, firstly, it is too depressing and secondly, Dvořák sweeps it away with a jig-like fourth theme (7:40) which Norrington supplies full of exuberance. This also allows Dvořák to reintroduce the idée fixe as a transition to the return of the cor anglais theme. Strings reduced to two players per part, the violins and violas muted, take over the theme very softly. The effect from Norrington is of maternal tenderness with Dvořák’s expressive gaps in the delivery as if almost choking mid-statement. This is on the edge of sentimentality, yet also deeply moving, and I think Norrington and Dvořák enjoy that challenge.

How does Bělohlávek compare? He plays the opening chords and score more scrupulously as written, which I prefer. His first theme is more coloured, its upper register second strain more pleading: you may prefer this greater expressiveness, but I still like Norrington’s simplicity, which makes me feel Bělohlávek a little too self-conscious. He also treats the second theme with more open, raw tone, which for me works well, including a more dramatic return of the first part of the theme than Norrington’s purer, more poetic approach. Yet Norrington’s cry at the climax is striking because less expected. Bělohlávek’s third theme is more richly reflective, as if another aspect of a philosophy of life linked with the first theme and equally extrovert, but not as hauntingly desolate as Norrington’s inwardness, with its more eerie tremolo of lower strings. Also, I am not sure that, to link first and third themes, Bělohlávek needs to throw off the fourth theme as an appendage. Nevertheless, in the first theme return he is just as tender as Norrington.

In the Scherzo (tr. 3) the vibrant rhythms and rhythmic variety of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances are very evident. Norrington makes its melodies bracing, mettlesome, but also sometimes charming. The first theme has forthright, perky energy, but the second (1:29) is all cajoling from the flute and oboe, and later clarinet, before getting a boost of warmth from cellos and bassoons. The first theme is determined to agitate but a calm-down evolves, and then another appearance of the idée fixe, which comes back again in the coda. The Trio keeps the contrasts alive with a first theme (3:02) of a Schubertian, bucolic quality, which comes with very gentle demeanour from Norrington, so is well matched by a second theme (3:24) of delicate finesse, as if a host of exotic butterflies have suddenly appeared.

Bělohlávek finds more humour in the first theme and also weight: his timpani’s ff entry which leads to the first loud tutti has more sheer attack than Norrington’s. Bělohlávek’s second theme is more self-aware and coy, attractively so, where Norrington’s winsome charm offers a different kind of pleasure. Timing at 8:08 to Norrington’s 7:25, Bělohlávek savours the whole experience of the movement more, in particular the Trio which takes him 2:07 against Norrington’s 1:39. Admittedly Dvořák does not mark the Trio slower, but I like the way Bělohlávek’s first theme pictures the country folk lolling at ease while his very soft violin accompaniment is like hammocks swinging in the breeze. His second theme is more boisterous in response to that breeze, becoming more of a swirl. With Bělohlávek you just soak up this atmosphere, whereas with Norrington you are made conscious of the rhythmic complexity, rests and trills that create it.

Leonard Bernstein, in his discerning yet accessible spoken and played analysis of this symphony (Deutsche Grammophon 4770002) demonstrates the similarity of the finale’s brief introduction to material in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an exhibition. That appears before Dvořák’s first theme (tr. 4, 0:15), given clean-cut presentation by Norrington in turn crisply showcasing horns, trumpets and violins. The second theme (1:15) has a syncopated accompaniment in the lower strings and wind against the triplets in the violins’ melody. Bernstein suggests that it “creates an excitement and punch that is peculiarly American”. He then feels it is spoilt by a third theme (1:54), highly redolent of Wagner’s Tannhäuser, which I would forgive every time for its gorgeous clarinet solo. Bernstein does not accept the fourth theme (2:40) as jazzy but perhaps early minstrel music because of the grace notes in the violin part, yet then wonders why the English tune ‘Three blind mice’ is at the end of its phrases. He does, however, own that it gets a Czech clothing of trilled third notes on flutes and oboes and scurrying strings’ semiquavers below (3:42). This all looks more patchwork than it sounds, partly because of the excitement Dvořák generates and the ingenuity of the scoring, both of which Norrington reveals well. A neat example of this is a running quaver version of the opening of the first theme (4:29). It introduces and accompanies the return of the slow-movement first theme before the stormy return of the idée fixe, to which the finale’s first theme responds passionately, affirmatively, and then with an unexpected eloquence of reflection that is almost elegy. How surely and movingly Norrington handles these contrasts of mood! But my favourite passage is Norrington’s magically soft cradling by flutes and clarinets of the transformation of the beginning of the fourth theme (7:46), with a close second place being, within this interlude, the lovely soft version of the idée fixe on solo horn. Soft versions are then the fashion for the reappearance of the slow movement first theme and a poetically forlorn oboe solo of the finale’s first theme, before Norrington’s dignified full orchestra peroration shows us that theme in unremitting, unresolved fff combat with the idée fixe fanfares.

Bělohlávek’s introduction to the finale is grimly formal yet his presentation of the first theme, with a grand sweep, is more thrilling than Norrington’s: the Czech Phil brass play as if their lives depend on it. Bělohlávek emphasises the momentum of the second theme, which therefore has a light swing. His third theme is less present than Norrington’s, like a vision of a beautiful wood nymph from a distance and therefore quite distinct from the in-your-face hubbub of the fourth theme. A feature of the latter that Norrington reveals well is the high-spirited offbeat two trumpets’ flares that accompany the first violins’ theme (2:40). With Bělohlávek, the trumpets are a touch more prominent than the violins (his recording, 2:49), and similarly protruding brass elsewhere stoke up excitement a little at the expense of aesthetic balance. Blame the Rudolfinum acoustic which gives the tutti such a stunning glow. I like the smoothly matey character Bělohlávek brings to the first return of the slow movement theme, and his treatment – more emotive than Norrington’s – of the return of the third theme. I find his treatment of the fourth less magical than Norrington’s because Bělohlávek makes the Un poco sostenuto free-floating in a rather nebulous manner where Norrington’s pinpoint clarity pays dividends. In the coda, Bělohlávek’s sense of awesome grandeur and frisson as the two themes collide is supreme.

The Carnival Overture is the most played and recorded of Dvorak’s overtures. I would say this is because it combines both aspects which make the Slavonic Dances so popular: the exciting energy of No. 7 of the second set (op. 72) on the one hand, and the wistful lyricism of No. 2 of that set on the other. In the opening theme of Carnival, Dvořák creates a sheer dynamism we really cannot have enough of, despite and because of the variety he showers around it. A brief triumphal march appendage (tr. 5, 0:44) is no more than a passing float. A rather wistful second theme (1:38) has more staying power, heard first on the violins with oboe and clarinet accompaniment, then on all the woodwind with more decorative comments. A jolly counterpart of a theme next comes along skipping in clarinets in octaves (2:40). But it is the central interlude I love most. Enter the harp (3:17) to conjure up a change of mood to the peaceful countryside around, but also an outrageous townie copy of its motif by 2 horns in octaves, which Norrington relishes in full measure (3:19). The interlude theme itself is a bright one on flute (3:51) exquisitely cushioned in this account by the second violins and violas, but I find the violin solo later too delicate to be fully appreciated. If the flute theme is birdsong, the clarinet adds another call. The return of the opening theme is hinted at but not realized until a thoroughgoing development. Not till we get the trombones ascending and descending on parade as if this was a Rossini overture is our patience rewarded. Norrington brings out well the extra fizz accompanying the first theme on horns and trumpets (7:54) before the rumbustious coda.

Norrington’s focus is clarified by comparison with Bělohlávek. Norrington emphasises the structure yet sometimes fine detail within that. Bělohlávek’s stress is on the poetry and more emotive contrast, resulting in more evident dynamic contrast too. Bělohlávek’s triumphal march goes with more of a swing. Bělohlávek takes more note of the Poco tranquillo marking for the second theme. In the interlude the flute solo is silkier, the atmosphere mistier, the violin solo sweeter and clearer. The development seems a place of fairy activity. It has more character and is more engaging than Norrington’s discipline. Bělohlávek does not bring the finesse of Norrington’s horns and trumpets, but his coda is more thrilling: it had my foot well and truly tapping.

I hope I have not given the impression that Norrington is a write-off in comparison with Bělohlávek. He is not, except in terms of value for money because, in addition to Norrington’s programme, Bělohlávek gives us the Symphonic Variations. Norrington’s considerable strengths throughout this CD are clarity of articulation and structure. His approach, cooler than the norm, illuminates Dvořák’s skill in scoring and dovetailing of melodies, and underpins a memorable account of the symphony’s slow movement and the poetic elements of its finale.

Michael Greenhalgh

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