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: