Symphony No. 9, Op. 95 (From the New World); Symphonic Variations, Op. 78
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop
Antonin Dvořák didn’t exactly reinvent himself when he took up residence in New York as conservatory director in 1892, but his natural instinct for understanding audiences gave rise to a major change in style. Turning away from the complexity of his symphonic and chamber works of the 1880s and the more experimental treatment of style and form in his Eighth Symphony, he forged a language that has proved irresistible to audiences. Simple in outline, in part to act as a model for his American pupils, the New World Symphony, with its driving rhythms, bright colours and unforgettable melodies in many ways epitomises the seductive nature of Dvořák’s new manner. From its premiere the work was a thundering success with audiences and has become one of the world’s favourite symphonies.
Recordings are legion and any newcomer to a field in which there are well over a hundred has to establish clear credentials. Performances vary hugely, ranging from Václav Talich’s winning but very flexible treatment (on Supraphon) to István Kertész (on Decca) and Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s (on Warner) more direct approach with strong attention to interpretative detail. Marin Alsop’s new version with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is certainly one to take very seriously, even in this exalted company. There is plenty of attention to detail: in the first movement just listen to the build up to the main Allegro and the care Alsop and the Baltimore players take over the phrasing before the recapitulation. But while the detail constantly catches the ear, there is also a very powerful sense of forward impetus, at its most acute in a thrilling conclusion to the movement. And in the process there’s no sentimentalising or excessive deference to the lyrical moments to rob the work of its essential freshness.
The same is true of the remaining movements. The celebrated Largo is given one of the most perfectly shaped and unaffectedly straightforward performances I have heard: led by a magnificently vocal cor anglais solo, there is throughout an almost operatic sense of narrative. The scherzo is superbly infectious with some marvellously gritty string playing and, while certainly forceful, the performance never loses an essential dance-like quality. Although there is a certain amount of interpretative intervention toward the end of the finale, it certainly does not get in the way of one of the most convincing readings of this movement I have ever heard. As in the slow movement, there is a strong sense of story telling, in what is, when all is said and done, Dvořák’s closest approach to a programme symphony, aided by some superb solo wind playing.
It is rare to be able to say that a performance forces one to listen to a work anew, but this is exactly what Alsop’s reading achieves. Excellently recorded and with an elegant and witty performance of the Symphonic Variations as makeweight, this is a superb issue all round.