Album Title: Antonin Dvorak: Symphony No.9 "From the New World"
Performers: Istvan Kertesz / Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Label and #: Esoteric / Decca ESSD 90015
Running time: 63'00"
Recorded: March 22-24 1961, Sofiensaal Vienna
|Dvorak's 9th Symphony is one of those classical pieces almost everybody has heard at some point in time but very few people know much about - and what is actually known is more often wrong than right. It took Dvorak a long time to reach celebrity and recognition. He actually started his first teenage years as a butcher, a trade he learnt from his father. Thankfully for him and us, Dvorak entered the Organ school of Prague at 16 and learnt a set of skills that, as music teacher and occasional organ player, barely kept him fed for the next decade and a half. Dvorak was already 34 when Johannes Brahms, aware of his potential, intervened to get him a state grant. From then on Antonin was on his way up with the greatest European stars of the 19th century, creating a new and unique voice from Bohemia starting with his Slavonic Dances.
At age 50, Dvorak had reached recognition and celebrity in Czechoslovakia and throughout Europe, finally receiving a long awaited professorship at the Prague Conservatory. So Dvorak was finally successful and established when Mrs. Jeannette Thurber invited him as teacher and artistic director to the newly created New York Conservatory with a more than generous salary associated with minimal work requirement. Dvorak was able to focus on his own compositional work as well as study all manner of American folk songs and tunes for almost three years.
Dvorak was very adamant that he was not developing existing themes but learning their structure to better transform it into something new as part of his own identity. That's the point the public missed at the very successful premiere of the symphony 'from the new world'. It remains a common misconception to today. Dvorak never intended the Ninth Symphony as a celebration of the new world, its themes and music. to his mind, it was a Slavonic Symphony made of Czech music enriched with American influences. He vehemently but to no avail protested when newspapers wrote that Dvorak had declared his allegiance to America through his music. The confusion was reinforced even more as, in all irony, some of Dvorak's pentatonic scales are as common to Slavonic music as they are to Negro spirituals.
Regardless of whether Dvorak intended his work to be a celebration of America's freedom or more a tribute to the free spirits of his native country, the work is dense with drama. Tension alternates with elegiac interludes and finishes off in a lively and complex transformation of the main theme. The music is bursting with energy and uplifts any listener to fully earn its status as global blockbuster.
And that's probably where Kertesz' reading with the Vienna Philharmonic fails to convince completely. Decca's 1961 master tapes sound very rich but seem almost heavy and opaque at times. The sound is warm and enveloping but almost too much, weighing down the performance a bit. Since Kertesz leans in the same direction of weight and massiveness, I missed some of the work's more primal energy.
As usual the tonal qualities, imaging and delineation of instruments are first grade as is the case with Esoteric's other re-mastering efforts. Unfortunately the heavy-handed direction failed to convince me completely. While pace and enthusiasm do pick up significantly in the third and fourth movements, it's simply too late to turn this work around into the exuberant explosion it ought to be. Ormandy and the London Symphony Orchestra, Szell and Cleveland or even my neighbor Marin Alsop and the Baltimore symphony managed a far more convincing unleashing of the Bohemian spirit than the Hungarian conductor - a paradox for sure. So recommended with reserve only for the collectors. There are more uplifting versions available and certainly versions I much prefer.