Notes and Editorial Reviews
Widely acclaimed for their Naxos recordings of Dvo?ák’s
Symphonies Nos. 7 and 8 and
No. 9 "From the New World" with the Symphonic Variations, Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra here present his Symphony No. 6, which pays tribute both to Dvo?ák’s mentor Brahms and to the rich folk music of his Bohemian homeland. The Nocturne is an arrangement for string orchestra of the beautiful slow movement from his Fourth String Quartet. Suggestive of a celebration of Nature, the Scherzo capriccioso is one of Dvo?ák’s most masterful and colourful works, with a winning principal waltz theme.
R E V I E W S:
Symphony No. 6 in D.
Nocturne in B,
Marin Alsop, cond; Baltimore SO
NAXOS 8570995 (68:19) Live: Baltimore
This is the third release in Marin Alsop’s Dvo?ák cycle with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra—her “New World” was reviewed in
32: 2 and her Seventh and Eighth in 34:2—and I have to say that this series is going from strength to strength. Without a doubt, this latest arrival is the best yet, and the previous releases were already in the very-good-to-excellent category.
Apparently, our editor red-penciled an entire paragraph from my review of Alsop’s Seventh and Eighth CD. Had it remained in place, it would have explained that the work we now count as Dvo?ák’s Symphony No. 6 was at one time his No. 1, and that only after four earlier symphonies surfaced around the middle of the 20th century were all of them renumbered to reflect their correct chronological order, as follows:
Date Key Old # New # B/Op. #
1865 C Minor 1 9
1865/77 B? Major 2 12/4
1873/77 E? Major 3 34/10
1874/77 D Minor 4 41/13
1875/77 F Major 3 5 54/76
1880 D Major 1 6 112/60
1884-5 D Minor 2 7 141/70
1889 G Major 4 8 163/88
1893 E Minor 5 9 178/95
The Sixth had a rocky start. Hans Richter, then conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic, persuaded Dvo?ák to compose a symphony after the warm reception the composer received from the orchestra during rehearsal of his Slavonic Rhapsody No. 3. Brahms, who attended the rehearsal, was also favorably impressed, but the performance was less well received by the Viennese audience. Dvo?ák set out to write the symphony Richter had requested, fully expecting the conductor and orchestra to premiere it when it was completed the following year. But in the interim, objections were raised and Richter caved. Disappointed, Dvo?ák turned to conductor Adolf ?ech, who premiered the work with the Czech Philharmonic in Prague in 1881. Richter finally reclaimed his manhood when he led a performance of the symphony in London in 1882. Vienna, meanwhile, had to wait until all of the old-timers in its orchestra faded away, before the VPO took up Dvo?ák’s Sixth for the first time 60 years later in 1942. But then we’re talking about an exclusive men’s club that resisted admitting women until 1997.
Much has been made of Dvo?ák’s relationship with Brahms at the time, and how the former’s Sixth Symphony was strongly influenced by the latter’s Second, completed three years earlier. The parallels, beyond the D-Major tonality both works share, are too many and too obvious to be coincidental. A. Peter Brown, in
The Second Golden Age of the Viennese Symphony
, has written that both symphonies have the same scoring, tempo, and meter in the first and last movements; and David R. Beveridge, in
Romantic Ideas in a Classical Frame
, cites the cyclical aspect of both scores in which their fourth-movement primary themes relate back to the primary first-movement themes. Then too, it cannot be denied that some of Dvo?ák’s thematic material has a familiar Brahmsian ring. But in at least two areas, Dvo?ák is his own man; rhythmically and melodically, elements of Czech folk song and dance are never far from the surface, such that no one would ever mistake this for a work by Brahms. Nowhere is this more evident than in the furiant Scherzo, a movement shot through with Dvo?ák’s distinctive Slavic peasantry.
In a field of Dvo?ák Sixths where quite a few dwellers claim ownership rights to the same acreage, Alsop and her Baltimore ensemble really make a compelling case in their favor. In 33:5, I was highly impressed with a new recording from an unexpected source, Jac van Steen and the Dortmund Philharmonic on MDG, which I found poised and lyrically inflected, if not perhaps quite as fluid and naturally flowing as versions by the Czech Philharmonic under Neumann, B?lohlávek, Mackerras, and Pe?ek. But the Baltimore band under Alsop delivers something different, and perhaps more, a performance with an American accent. By that I mean an edge, an energy, a thrust, and a forward-driving momentum that seem to be less in evidence in other recordings I’ve heard. One hears it in the bloom and solidity of the string sections, the commanding authority of the brass, and the luminosity of the winds. Alsop has the Baltimore orchestra playing like it’s in the top 10.
Filling out the disc are the B-Major Nocturne and the
The Nocturne is a transcription of the Andante relgioso movement from the composer’s E-Minor String Quartet.
It’s probably belittling to call the
, at 15 minutes in length, mere filler. Written in 1875, it’s a fully worked-out movement that bears Dvo?ák’s native Czech stamp. It anticipates both the
of three years later and, in some ways, the style the composer would adopt for his popular
Overture of 1891. You have to love the way what goes around comes around. In 1883, two years after the VPO had refused to premiere Dvo?ák’s Sixth Symphony, the composer was invited to London, where the
and other of his works were enthusiastically received. Meanwhile, his reputation having grown, he received an offer from Vienna to write a German opera, an offer he snubbed. I’d love to read the letter he must have written declining the invitation.
Go Alsop. This one is hard to beat. Conductor and orchestra have their work cut out for them to equal or better this release with their hopefully forthcoming 1 through 5.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
This is a performance of the symphony which has nearly every advantage: lively tempi in the outer movements which ensure that things move along excitingly, a full orchestral sound with especially commanding brass, and sound which puts the listener in the center of the concert hall. At first I thought that the timing of the first movement (16:12) was a misprint, but no: Alsop, like Witold Rowicki and almost nobody else, takes the first-movement repeat. True, Dvorák felt the repeat was best left aside, but Alsop and her band make a great case for it, especially at the vigorous tempi they have chosen. It feels right: the music moves along with freshness and life.
The adagio is good. However, Václav Talich’s luxuriously slow adagio (13:28) has utterly ruined most rivals for me; Talich and his Czech Philharmonic linger lovingly over every single woodwind solo in a way which might well strike some as excessive. I, however, adore it, and as good as Alsop is, her adagio sounds rather ordinary in comparison. Not that she can be faulted: sounding ordinary, too, are Kubelík, Ancerl, Rowicki, and Mackerras, although Otmar Suitner conjures up his own magical effects.
The scherzo is lively but a bit herky-jerky next to Kubelík’s - does the main tune get faster after the trio? The finale is hugely exciting and benefits from splendid brass and wind playing, especially in the thrilling coda. The trombones, especially, have a satisfying weight which makes their appearances memorable. All in all, I would say that this eclipses the previous Naxos effort with the Slovak Philharmonic and Stephen Gunzenhauser - that sounds like a grudging compliment, but in fact Gunzenhauser’s Sixth is very good - and will please both Dvorákians and newcomers. The best digital account is probably that from Charles Mackerras on Supraphon - which has a simply blazing finale and the glorious Czech Philharmonic - but any buyer has to consider this.
The couplings are not bad either. The Nocturne is simply gorgeous, and sounds ahead of its time. Marin Alsop gave us my preferred recording of Barber’s Adagio (with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra) and in many ways the Dvorák Nocturne is a perfect complement: both string orchestra scores with immediate lyrical and emotional appeal, unusually deep and reflective in mood, in neighboring keys (B flat minor and B major), and achieving nearly exactly opposite effects. No wonder Alsop is so assured here. The
Scherzo capriccioso is less unambiguously a success: it sounds as if Alsop has knowingly traded rhythmic snap and energy for tonal allure. The advantage is that the Baltimore Symphony sounds really wonderful; the disadvantage is that the
scherzo is not as
capriccioso as Kubelík, Dohnányi or Mariss Jansons would have it. Kudos to Alsop, though, for observing the trio’s repeat, something those three men fail to do.
The last CD in this series was one of my two least favorite CDs of 2010. So what has changed between this installment and previous ones? First, Alsop has had a predilection for fast tempi which helped ruin her Seventh but suits the outer movements of the Sixth well; second, her orchestra is one I have described as a Brahms orchestra, with full, rich strings, and the Baltimore Symphony is therefore better-suited to the Sixth as well. Equally importantly, the sound engineers here finally give the winds a bit of room to breathe. The timpani are still rather recessed, but the brass have much more of a say here than they did in the Seventh, where they occasionally seemed to have been caught napping or in another room. The trombones, as mentioned, earn a really satisfying prominence.
– Brian Reinhart, MusicWeb International
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