Dvorak: Symphony No. 9 (SACD review)

Seiji Ozawa, San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. PentaTone PTC 5186 168.

As you know, PentaTone is the company that is still issuing multichannel SACD's when most of the music industry has given up the idea. PentaTone either records things new or goes back to the old Quadraphonic format of the Seventies and revives recordings originally done in four channels but often never released that way. Such is the case with this Quad recording of Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 from maestro Seiji Ozawa and the San Francisco Symphony, now on multichannel SACD.

Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) penned his New World Symphony in 1893, shortly after he and his family came to New York for a visit of several years. When American critics first heard the work, they praised it for its elements of African American and Native American cultures, to them things that made the music "American" in nature. As it turns out, though, Dvorak said he wrote mainly music of the "common man" and used primarily Slavic folk tunes vaguely familiar to his homeland. No matter, people will forever think of the Ninth as Dvorak's "American" piece.

I was never a big fan of Ozawa during his tenure (1970-77) with the San Francisco Symphony, and this recording of the Dvorak Ninth tends to confirm my opinion. He seemed to do much better when he moved along to the Boston Symphony. In any event, the opening movement, while full of energy, appears lacking in fundamental joy. It's also oddly static, never moving much beyond the same routine cadences. Ozawa never develops any rhythmic pulse, so this section comes off mostly loud and noisy rather than jubilant or exhilarating.

The conductor puts a little more feeling into the Largo, with its lovely cor anglais part. However, it still doesn't convey quite the haunting, melancholy longing heard in other interpretations. The orchestra appears at their best here, though, supplying plenty of warmhearted, sympathetic support.

Ozawa doesn't do a lot to put much sparkle into the Scherzo, either, which also comes off in rather humdrum, run-of-the-mill fashion. Nevertheless, he manages the finale better, starting off strong, with real emphasis. Maybe he was saving all his best shots for this last big moment. Anyway, while the finale still isn't all that inspiring, failing to catch the spirit that Kertesz, Dorati, Reiner, Macal, Kubelik,  Pesek, and others do, at least it doesn't lull one to sleep.

The album closes with Dvorak's Carnival Overture. The composer meant the title to suggest "youth, lust and exuberant life," and Ozawa does come close to portraying those qualities.

The recording, which Decca made at Cupertino Hall in 1975, is miked closer than Decca, Philips, or RCA ever miked the San Francisco orchestra, offering a good deal of detail but at the expense of losing some depth, air, and ambience. Be that as it may, the stereo layer that I listened to is quite dynamic and well defined, with the sound opening up quite effectively. If you have multichannel SACD capabilities with your audio system, I would imagine the surround sound should be impressive.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first 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 use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (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.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa