Dvorak: Symphony No. 9 “From the New World” (CD review)

Also, Cello Concerto. Mario Brunello, cello; Antonio Pappano, Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. EMI Classics 50999 9 14102 2 1 (2-disc set).

This two-disc release from Maestro Antonio Pappano and the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia features two of Czech composer Antonin Dvorak’s (1841-1904) most popular works, the “New World” Symphony and the Cello Concerto. It’s always good to hear them again, even though there is already a boatload of excellent recordings available, even though the two discs provide short measure on playing time (about forty-four and forty-two minutes each), and even though the folks at EMI give us live concert readings of both works.

Disc one contains the Symphony No. 9 “From the New World,” which Dvorak wrote in 1893 while serving as director of the New York Conservatory. Many listeners over the years have heard instances of American idioms in the music, especially African-American spirituals and Native-American influences, when in fact Dvorak said most of the music was original, probably inspired more by his native Bohemia than anything else. Its title, “From the New World,” only came about because Dvorak happened to be living in New York at the time he wrote it. While to some degree local tunes may have affected the composer, the music seems mostly Czech in flavor. At the very least as Leonard Bernstein once remarked, one might consider it multinational.

Whatever, Pappano, chiefly an operatic conductor, gives us a big, bold, operatic treatment of the score, with big, broad strokes through a strong introduction. Then Pappano maintains a steady step through the rest of the first movement; maybe too steady because it doesn’t seem to have as much dynamism as it might. It does come to life toward the end, however.

The slow, quiet, second-movement Largo, with its famous cor anglais melody, sounds sweetly flowing and is one of the highlights of the set. Unfortunately, the rustlings of the live audience often intrude on the serenity of the scene. A zesty rendering of the Scherzo comes off well, providing an appropriate contrast. Finally, Pappano ends the piece in a blaze of glory, although one continues to have the feeling he’s holding something back, even when his speeds belie the notion.

So, what we have in Pappano’s Ninth is a nice, easily digestible performance with lyric beauty and grand gestures. Still, when one considers the competition, it’s hard to see Pappano’s version standing out in any particular way. Maybe it’s just hard to make a dent in a list of recommendations that includes Kertesz and the LSO (Decca), Reiner and the CSO (RCA or RCA/JVC), Dorati and the New Philharmonia (HDTT), Macal and the LPO (EMI), Neumann and the Czech Philharmonic (Denon), Kubelik and the Berlin Philharmonic (DG), Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony (Naxos), and so many more.

Disc two contains the Cello Concerto in B minor, which Dvorak wrote in 1895, rather late in his career. Still, it has become one of the most-popular cello concertos of all time, and there is no mistaking its late Romantic trappings, its abundance of melody, and its strong emotional involvement.

The pace of Pappano’s reading of the Concerto is even slower here than in the Symphony, the gestures broader. What’s more, solo cellist Mario Brunello, undoubtedly a virtuoso player, seems often to force the music, as though he were trying his best to ask us please to listen to him by his overemphasizing each note and each pause between notes. Again, the competition in this work is so intense, one can hardly find room for this recording in a lineup that already includes such notable recordings as those from Starker, Dorati, and the LSO (Mercury), Gendron, Haitink, and the LPO (HDTT), Wallfisch, Mackerras, and the LSO (Chandos), Rostropovich, Karajan, and the BPO (DG), Ma, Masur, and the NYPO (Sony), and the like. 

EMI recorded the two works in live concerts at Sala Santa Cecilia, Auditorium Parco della Musica, Rome, in 2011 (the Symphony) and 2012 (the Concerto). The engineers miked it relatively closely, presumably to diminish distracting audience noise, but there is still some coughing, wheezing, and shuffling of feet that becomes especially annoying during quieter passages. Worse, the close miking renders a somewhat flat sonic picture, with good detail and good separation of instruments but little air or depth. Then, too, there is not a lot of lower midrange or upper bass warmth, making the sound appear slightly hard, thin, bright, and forward. So, what we get is more of a movie-theater sound, despite its being recorded before a live audience.

The bursts of applause after each selection don’t help much, either, serving only to disturb one’s appreciation for the performances. I don’t know why record companies feel the need to retain the closing applause in live recordings; maybe they think it adds to the realism of the occasion, but, really, we listeners are in our living rooms; we know it’s not a concert hall. I prefer that record companies simply give us the performance and not the noise.

To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


JJP

2 comments:

  1. John,
    Congratulations for your blog.
    You have already covered a large span of works which provide a flavor of your preferences.
    May I do a suggestion? As you did it for chocolate (great article, by the way!), could you add a kind of rating (6/10..) on recording reviews.
    I am, maybe, too much "rating-oriented" as I try to do on my blog :(http://selectionmusiqueclassique.blogspot.fr/).(In french).
    The recommendations you mention are very relevant. I bought recently Kertesz version with Wiener Philarmoniker, I was really subjugated by the commitment of the conductor and his orchestra.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for the kind words and suggestions, Patrice. Yes, when I started the site I thought about ratings for performance and sound, much as I had been doing in my movie reviews. But I decided against it in favor of simply describing my feelings and not being pinned down to numerical ratings. Also, when I really, really like something, you should know it because of the tenor of the review and because I might recommend the recording in my "Basic Classical Collection" article. But I'll continue thinking about your advice.

    ReplyDelete

John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

I've been listening to classical music most of my life, starting with the classical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first classical recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor. Today, I'm retired from teaching and using a pair of VMPS RM40s. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (moviemet.com, formerly DVDTOWN) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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