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Antonin Dvorak: Symphony No. 9, "From The New World" (Op. 95), and "Symphonic Variations" (Op. 78); The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop, Conductor (Naxos, 8.570714S), 2008.

A Political Analysis, or Dvorak's Dilemma

Max Dudious

Ever since I first saw the film Wells Fargo (Paramount,1937) at a Saturday matinee in about 1940, an immodest epic western starring Joel McCrea and Frances Dee, I get a chill every time I hear the main theme of what has come to be called Dvorak's "New World Symphony." I can't remember exactly how the film used that symphony, a composition admittedly somewhat based on American Indian melodies and "Negro Spirituals." Probably the music swelled as the Wells Fargo wagons violated the hegemony of the Indian territory. I do remember I was overwhelmed by a mixture of exhilarating testosterone-related responses: the music stirred my evolving manhood, my John Wayne-driven national pride, and my pride in American entrepreneurial capitalism. I figure I must have received a large share of my values from such movies. I remember getting an enthusiasm for the music so fierce I forced my dad to get me a copy of the entire symphony as a stack of 45 rpm vinyl records, just so he wouldn't have to hear it over and over. Early in the hi-fi era, he was doubly pleased I wouldn't have to touch his prized system.

Imagine a little kid in his room, blasting his record player as loud as it could go, a miniature audiophile in hog heaven, playing Dvorak's Ninth over and over on his tiny RCA 45 rpm player, in "Glorious Living Mono," with its high-output crystal cartridge, its one-tube amplifier, and its 4" full-range point-source loudspeaker. One might say Dvorak's Symphony From The New World introduced me to European "classical" music and its electro-magnetic reproduction. To this day I carry a warm spot in my heart for this symphony.

I have more than one recording of the piece, naturally (a nearly worn-out vinyl version with Rafael Kubelik and the Vienna Philharmonic; an unexpectedly good CD of Alexander Titov and the Orchestra "New Philharmony," of St. Petersburg; plus an excellent CD of Pavel Urbanek and the Prague Festival Orchestra), and I was considerably thrilled when I recently opened a manila envelope marked "For Review" to find (to my surprise) an interpretation of this music by my hometown band as illuminating, when I played it, as any I've ever heard. I was so enthused by the music I thought of opening a Wells Fargo credit card, out of respect for those who opened the West. But I took my offer off the table before the deal was done.

[By the way, in this morning's newspaper I noticed the hometown Oriole baseball team was riding a six game winning streak to the undisputed possession of first-place in the American League East, sporting the league's leading hitter, "Rookie" Luke Scott, with a .500 batting average. Ya' never know! Ya' know?]

For those of you who regularly read my screed, you'll remember I admitted a little impatience with Dvorak's chamber music (though many people adore it), in my report of the San Miguel (Mexico) Chamber Music Festival-2007. I offer the opinion, here, that his Ninth Symphony, written while he was in the U.S. (1892-1895?) and at the height of his powers, is a masterful work—much better than ever I'd given it credit for – revealed as such in this careful reading by Maestra Marin Alsop. In Dvorak's own words, "It pleases me very much and it will differ very substantially from my earlier compositions." I believe Dvorak, himself, recognized this symphony to be a late masterpiece. Better late than never.

Of Dvorak, Brahms once commented, "The fellow has more ideas than any of the rest of us. Anyone could gather up his throwaways and use them as main themes." Alsop's thoughtful, caring vision of his music reveals Dvorak as a very resourceful melodist, a deft colorist, a first-class orchestrator, and demonstrates what I suspect is a genuinely passionate feeling for Dvorak's work. The performance is not a mere going through the score as if painting by the numbers. Every detail, each choice of tempo, every emphasis or de-emphasis of instrumental combinations, every voicing of sonority, seems to have been arrived at after much deliberation, as befits a student of Leonard Bernstein. The Ninth Symphony marked what some critics feel is the high water mark of Dvorak's career as a symphonic composer. Alsop seems to recognize this and, I infer, has made of herself a vessel for Dvorak's great work. More on that anon.

First I must enter a two paragraph discourse on what I feel is a rather good development in music since the end of World War II. One thread is the impact of Wagner. Wagner's music was so heavy, so portentous, so seeking to lead the audience to religious wonder, that the manner in which Wagner was played seeped into many performances of pre-Wagnerian and post-Wagnerian music. I think the "original instrument" approach to composers like Vivaldi and Bach was a slyly subversive means of importing lively performance techniques written about in books from the eras when the music was written. This "original instrument" movement was one of revolutionary intent. Much of the faster tempi given to, say, Vivaldi and Bach, was a reaction against applying Wagnerian grand processional time signatures to music that was intended as spritely syncopated dance music, or intended as rapidly played fugues—for the enjoyment of the musicians as well as their audiences.

This "original instrument" subterfuge was successful, and for a while it seemed everything was played at the gallop; hear Toscanini's Beethoven and Brahms, as well as some Bach. Now we are engaged in a great counter-revolution wherein conductors are called upon to select just how quickly or slowly the music is to be taken, section by section within one movement, down to the phrase. We have moved beyond the formulaic "fast first movement, slow second movement, fast third movement," etc. Sometimes sections of first movements are played slowly, while parts of second movements are played quickly, etc.; sometimes very slowly or very quickly; and sometimes profoundly slowly and ridiculously quickly. In moderation, Dvorak's work lends itself to such changes in tempo. A too-quick tempo often results in a sunnier, dance-like presentation, but with certain details of orchestration being glossed over. A slower tempo often results in a more spacious, thoughtful, and reflective presentation, but often feels more somber. Trade-offs. Always trade-offs. A slower pace usually offers access to more ‘inner voices,' and ‘down-in-the-mix details.' Slowing down often keeps a performance from flying by us, leaving us feeling we missed much of the performance, whatever is conveyed in the inner voices and details. A relaxed tempo gives us an opportunity for a ‘deeper reading' and a portrait of the composer, in this case, Dvorak, who gains in stature with such treatment as Maestra Alsop provides.

Despite having listened to Dvorak's "From The New World" numerous times, and thinking I knew it by heart, this new New World has enlightening details and inner voices (woodwinds and strings in particular, sometimes playing in duet or trio, sometimes in call and response pattern) scattered about that I'd never attended. To double-check my intuitive hunch, I pulled another version from my shelf; this one played by the Prague Festival Orchestra, Pavel Urbanek conductor, (LaserLight 15 517), issued in 1988. (Yes, I do check out the discount record bins at Circuit City just for masterful recordings such as this. I'm no "label snob." And the prices make buying off-brand recordings a no-brainer. Like a five CD set of Nat "King" Cole (also LaserLight), and The King Cole Trio's World War II recordings for Armed Services Broadcasts, which cost me all of about $15 some years ago.)

Dvorak was a Czech, and if this Prague Festival Orchestra (PFO) isn't in touch with his music, who is? This has been my "reference" performance of the work for the past decade, and it is pretty damn good. The PFO's older digital recording suffers in comparison, for while the recording engineering is reasonably good, it isn't as good as the BSO's CD made last summer. The march of Time and capital "T" Technology waits on no man. The CD process itself (introduced in 1983) was only about five years old when the PFO album was recorded, and though it may be an excellent example of what the CD could do, it also suffers from some of the sins of the early CD era. The PFO recording (also including Dvorak's Romance For Violin, Op.11, and his "Carnival" Overture), issued in 1988, has few moments in conductor Urbanek's performance with any hint of the counter-revolutionary, that is, going against the anti-Wagner trend to speed every thing up. The performance is pretty "traditional," coming before the insidious "original instrument" movement attained full power.

Traditional Dvorak ain't bad, but counter-revolutionary Dvorak is bitchin'. Early digital sound isn't always bad, but contemporary 20 bit digital sound (with all its various algorithms, plus the elimination of the 20 kHz filter, etc.) surpasses it in many ways. Consider the differences between harsh, grainy twenty-year-old CD players and silky, sweet contemporary "universal" CD players, even with Redbook CDs. If you've been reading my stuff, or have had similar experiences, you'll understand what I'm getting at. Would you use a twenty-year-old CD player today?

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the new Naxos-engineered production of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's recording of Dvorak's Ninth leapfrogs over my old PFO version. The BSO offering isn't locked into some set of strict tempo restraints: it changes up often, in midstream. The new reading, quicker and more propulsive in some spots, slower and more thoughtful in others, reveals some of the most interesting aspects of Dvorak's compositional techniques.

By choosing to couple the symphony with the Symphonic Variations, Alsop wants us to hear how rich in musicianship was Dvorak's orchestration, and how masterfully he understood variations in melody, harmony, counterpoint, and tempo (often to generate a sense of acceleration). It is as if by placing the Variations (Op.78) ahead of the Symphony (Op.95) in the order of play, attentive listeners of the CD would hear in miniature (22 minutes) what Dvorak would do later in his career with a whole symphony (42 minutes).

Obviously, I was wrong to make fun of his chamber work: maybe Dvorak was a born symphonist, and didn't understand that himself. He may have needed the complete orchestral palette of colors to express his musical ideas. I think it took Maestra Alsop to get me to understand Dvorak's dilemma. He used the skeletal string quartet to attempt to express musical ideas that were fully fleshed out in his mind, but didn't quite fit the quartet. It took a trip abroad to rid himself of the strictures of the European (conservatory influenced) compositional canon. In the New World he was free to redefine himself. In hindsight, he might have titled Symphony No. 9, "From the New Me." ("I Gotta Be Me"? Naaah!)

This new reading of The New World Symphony is a keeper. It has very impressive sound and uses cracker-jack recording engineering to capture the acoustic of the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall as I know it—as in, nearly weekly for over ten years, now. Maestra Alsop offers a very adaptive reading, almost as if she could read Dvorak's soul, exposed as it is in the score. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra shows it is a band for all seasons, keeping pace with the Romantic Dvorak's running river of melody, and showcasing the fireworks of his orchestration, by playing the second movement (the "Going Home" theme) with extreme tenderness, and the fourth (dare I say, "Wagnerian") movement with great propulsion and noble sonorities. This is in contrast to her BSO debut album, with Joshua Bell on violin, of Corigliano's Violin Concerto, with all its late 20th century, Stravinsky influenced, angularity and modern harmonies. This Dvorak recording spotlights a well-balanced orchestra for a well-balanced work, with a conductor who knows when to emphasize what. And special accolades, kudos, and encomium to recording engineer Leszek Wójik, and the gang at Naxos. Finally, for those of you who might view my political talk as literal, I suggest you find a copy of The Dictionary of World Literature and look up "Irony."

If you're in the market for a new Dvorak's Symphony No. 9, "From the New World," or if you don't know much about Dvorak (or Alsop, or the BSO) and wish greater acquaintance, just dial up your favorite vendor. I'm pretty sure you'll be pleased.

And when you do, tell ‘em Max Dudious sent ya'.

Ciao, Bambini.