Symphony Studies Nos. 51 & 52 | Dvořák No. 8 & 9

by Glenn on August 3, 2016

Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904)

Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Opus 88
Allegro con brio
Allegretto grazioso
Allegro ma non troppo

First performance: 2 February 1890 | Prague | Conducted by the composer

Symphony No. 9 in e minor, Op. 95, From the New World
Adagio—Allegro molto
Molto vivace
Allegro con fuoco

First Performance: 15 December 1893 | New York Philharmonic | Anton Seidl

I’ve been waiting for just the right moment to listen to this recording:

The right time finally came. Before I say anything about the music, I want to note that the recording itself is extraordinary. Actually, I have yet to hear a bad recording by Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra.

The Fischer/BFO collaboration is both a throw-back and something thoroughly modern. The orchestra sounds like it’s from another time. It has a string-centric tone. The brass is there with plenty of punch, but is not allowed to dominate. And the strings from time to time include healthy amounts of portamento, which hearkens to the orchestral practice of a century ago.

Here is an example of that string section with portamento on full display.

It’s a marvel at how much stylistic freedom they play with while keeping things very clean and tidy. But unlike orchestras of the past, this phenomenal band is recorded so beautifully, you don’t have to listen past the recording. You enjoy a great performance and a great recorded sound. Or, maybe it’s better to say, Great recorded sound allows you to enjoy a great performance without distraction.

Mr. Fischer has beautiful detailing and the artistry of his musicians is first class.

When Gramophone some years ago ranked the top orchestras in the world, The Budapest Festival Orchestra was placed No. 9. James Jolly, editor-in-chief of Gramophone, wrote this:

“Watching the BFO rehearse or record is like glimpsing chamber-music-making on a big scale, each player deeply concerned about his or her contribution to the whole. And in Fischer they have not a dominant ego, but a facilitator of remarkable sensitivity.”

You really appreciate the chamber playing in the Largo of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9. The english horn playing is just exquisite. I’d include a sample, here, but the entire movement is worth listening to.

 *  *  *

One of the aspects of Michael Steinberg’s list of symphonies is that it includes works that are both entirely familiar and wholly unfamiliar. As you work through this list, you become reacquainted with works you’ve neglected, discover new treasures, and are exposed to some works you don’t care for.

I’ve learned that as a listener I’ve been in a rut, walking the well-worn paths of music that is familiar and pleases me. There is something just terrific about the new discovery. Antonín Dvořák has been one of these.

Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Opus 88 was entirely new to me while his Symphony No. 9 in e minor, Opus 95, From the New World, is quite familiar. But I could see myself reaching for No. 8 as much as the No. 9 going forward. (And this particular performance may need to be included on my Deserted Island CD Collection.)

The pairing of these two symphonies is ideal. The liner notes by Patrick Lambert say that “Unlike Dvořák’s previous two symphonies, which were written to order for Vienna and London in turn, this final pair was written to satisfy his own poetic muse.” It’s intriguing to me that after writing these two symphonies on his own terms, he decided not to work in the genre any longer, instead turning to symphonic poems.

Reflecting on his Symphony No. 7, I said that Dvořák’s music was tied to a place. With these two symphonies, I think it’s fair to say that the music is even more evocative of place.

Symphony No. 8

Lambert refers to the Eighth as “From the Old World” because it is “rooted in Central Europe.” The conductor Václav Talich described it as “a work singing of the joy of green pastures, of summer evenings, of the melancholy of blue forests, of the defiant merry-making of the Czech peasants.” A flute solo early on made me think of bird calls.

The third and fourth movements were my favorite.

In the third movement Dvořák pays with cross rhythms, two versus three as can be heard here:

The fourth movement opens with a dignified theme that sounds like it could be English:

But with a tempo change, we’re most definitely in the home country:

Among the delights of this symphony are the occasional moments of chamber music, which are delightful, like this flute solo from the last movement.

Johannes Brahms, who opened doors for Dvořák in the publishing world , couldn’t quite give the symphony full-throated praise when he heard its premiere in Vienna. He said,

“Too much that’s fragmentary and incidental loiters about the piece. Everything fine musically, captivating and beautiful—but no main points! Especially in the first movement, the result is not proper. But a charming musician!”

Symphony No. 9

While the Symphony No. 9 is titled From the New World, that may be saying more about where the music was composed than what it is about.

There is a little debate about this symphony. Is this American music or not? I’m going to say it’s music inspired in and by America, but is connected to the Old World. Dvořák was in America when he wrote it and the two inner movements “were influenced by (unspecified) scenes from Longfellow’s poem The Song of Hiawatha.” (Lambert) Still, it is written with so much longing that I think it is about his distant homeland. You can put the Bohemian in New York, but you can’t take the Bohemian out of him.

Steinberg takes care to tell the story of the two sojourns that Dvořák made to America. He also reports on the way Dvořák’s New World symphony was a critical success right from the start. Following its premiere in New York, Henry T. Fink, a music critic for the New York Evening Post wrote,

“Any one who heard it could not deny that it is the greatest symphonic work ever composed in this country. . . . A masterwork has been added to the symphonic literature.”

The version I am most familiar with is by Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Normally I am pretty well stamped by the first recording I hear of a great symphony. Fischer does some different things with the music and is quite persuasive in his account.

There is an interesting relationship between a great artist and a great piece of music. The artist brings the music to life. The way they bring it alive is through an interpretation which may or may not be conventional, in line with the history of performance.

What I appreciate about Mr. Fischer is that while I may be surprised by some of his artistic choices in a piece of music, for example a tempo difference or shading of orchestral color (as happened to me with Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9), it’s done so well that it feels right and you wonder if the “traditional” interpretation or sound is somehow “wrong.”

The Largo was gorgeous, probably the high water mark on this CD. It has the qualities of a Negro spiritual (not meaning any sort of disrespect with that term; just placing a type of music in an historical context) and William Arms Fisher adapted it beautifully into a song,

but Steinberg anchors this movement in “the world of legend, the world of Hiawatha.” The problem, though, is that “Even if all concur that this movement has something to do with Hiawatha, there has never been agreement as to just what that connection is.” Theories include:

•”Hiawatha’s wooing of Minnehaha”
•”Hiawatha’s funeral”
•”Hiawatha’s and Minnehaha’s long and slow journey home after their wedding, but less with the journey itself than, as the pastoral tone of the music suggests, the landscape through which the couple pass.”

Steinberg has an interesting comment on the tempo of this movement—Largo. He writes,

“It took Dvořák a while to realize how slow this movement really needs to be. In his sketches it is andante. Then it became larghetto, and it was only after he heard [Anton] Seidl rehearse it at a tempo far slower than the one he had imagined, but which proved to fit perfectly, that he changed it to largo.”

Dvořák includes plenty of homage to other composers:

•The “funeral-march language” in the Largo “is based on the great march in Beethoven’s Eroica.”
•”The heart-stopping silences that interrupt the last recital of the melody [in the Largo] when it is heard on just a few muted strings were surely borrowed, lovingly, from the final page of Schubert’s great Sonata in A major, D.959.”
•The opening of the third movement comes from the scherzo of Beethoven’s Ninth.
•In the final movement, “the chords that introduced the Largo return, now evoking the Siegfried Wanderer in their new fortissimo scoring.”

Mostly, Dvořák appears to be taking the basic form of the symphony and adding folk and undefined programmatic elements to it. Some composers don’t want to think outside the box—Brahms, for example. Other composers don’t seem aware that there is a box (Gustav Mahler). I like how Dvořák decided simply to color outside the lines a bit. Great artistry does not require revolution.