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Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)
Symphony No 9 in E minor, Op 95 'From the New World'
Slavonic Dances, Op 46 Nos 1, 3 and 8
Israel Philharmonic Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein
rec. 24 September 1986, Salle Pleyel, Paris, France (symphony); 7 June 1988, Frederic R. Mann Auditorium, Tel Aviv, Israel
Reviewed as download
Presto CD

Everyone who thinks they know Dvořák and the New World Symphony needs to hear this recording - not that it could ever be a representative choice of the work. Possibly, though, it could be representative of the magic that was Lenny in his final years.

As you may not be surprised to learn, this is a highly individual reading; in particular, with a Largo that stretches to eighteen and half minutes, followed by a turbo-charged Scherzo at seven minutes, it is certainly a performance of extremes (taking the classic Kertész/LSO on Decca as a point of reference, that performance takes twelve and a half minutes in the Largo and nearly eight minutes in the Scherzo). I am not sure that Bernstein entirely pulls it off, to be honest. The first movement, conventionally paced and with the exposition repeat, is rather good, with the Israeli woodwinds happily gurgling away. The Scherzo, though, is too fast and often little more than a garbled blur, while the last movement rather sags under the weight of its own sense of self-importance, even if it is still somewhat engaging. Yet that long, eighteen-minutes-plus Largo - somehow Bernstein does pull that off. There is a tremendous sense of nostalgia during much of it, exquisitely and devotedly played by the Israel PO, as well as moments when time seems to stand still. Whenever I listen to this recording of the Largo, I am reminded of the paintings of Albert Bierstadt, a German born artist who emigrated to the USA in the nineteenth century and then proceeded to capture on canvas the epic majesty and far-flung vistas of this pre-superpower era New World, with its mighty mountains, dense forests and everlasting, rolling pastures. I am not sure if Dvořák had quite such grandiose images in mind when he was writing the music for the slow movement of his last symphony, but the fact that Bernstein is able to convey such visions musically means that maybe, even if just for this movement alone, every reader should somehow hear this recording, for I certainly have never encountered anything quite like it. It is genuine podium greatness.

As a result, it is difficult to find comparisons, even for a work so often recorded as this one. Slow performances of the New World are not unique and a few do come to mind: Rostropovich and the London PO on EMI at fifty minutes is one, for example; he rather treats the music as if it is a symphonic epic, an In the Steppes of Bohemian Woods and Fields if you like, but too often the performance drags and sometimes is just plain dull. Unsurprisingly, Celibidache with the Munich PO, also on EMI, is another and indeed is even slower at 53 minutes (and without the first movement exposition repeat, observed by both Bernstein and Rostropovich), but for all the moments of textural revelation in his reading, he treats the Largo as if it is an Adagio by Bruckner and seriously lacks sparkle and warmth elsewhere. But Bernstein, even at fifty minutes overall and with a Largo some two minutes longer than both of these conductors, is not just slow - his drive elsewhere often puts him alongside other, more fast-n’-furious recordings such as those by Toscanini/NBC and Reiner/Chicago Symphony (both RCA), as well as, more recently, Iván Fischer with the Budapest Festival Orchestra (Philips), all of which take just under forty minutes for the whole work. Even Bernstein’s earlier recording with the NYPO (CBS/Sony, apparently rated quite highly in the USA, if not so much in Europe) at forty-three minutes, was closer to this speedier ideal. All of which kind of indicates why, ultimately, this Israel Philharmonic reading is a failure, as it is just too extreme - too fast one moment, too slow the next to properly cohere symphonically. However, it is still perhaps the most individual performance this oft-played and recorded work has ever had – and as such is one which demands to be heard by all serious collectors, even if they may never want to hear it again.

DG offers very good and consistent sound, especially in light of the two different venues used (the symphony was recorded live in Paris, the Slavonic Dances in Tel Aviv), whether on compact disc, mp3 of FLAC downloads. The audiences in both cities are remarkably quiet, save for in the three Slavonic Dance encores, where the rhythms are pulled around shamelessly and the music is sprinkled with more glitz, bad taste and glamour than Dvořák probably ever saw in his lifetime and which are therefore (of course!) cheered most enthusiastically.

Overall, then, a bit of a mixed bag – but one containing a symphonic movement of genuine magic, which every lover of this work should hear.

Lee Denham

Published: October 10, 2022

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