Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95 ‘From the New World’; A Hero’s Song – Symphonic Poem, Op. 111
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
BR Klassik 900116
The lyrical beauties and dynamism of the New World Symphony need no advocacy, but A Hero’s Song, with which it is imaginatively coupled on this new disc, requires some introduction: composed four years after the New World, it was the last of the symphonic poems Dvořák wrote between 1895 and 1897 on his return from New York to Bohemia. The rudimentary programme is about triumph over adversity won through determination, much in the manner of Strauss’s Heldenleben. Musically, it veers from febrile neurosis to almost overbearing assertiveness, but on the way there is much exquisite melody and superb orchestration. Mahler conducted its successful premiere and it is certainly a work we should hear more often, not least because it tells us so much about Dvořák himself. Andris Nelsons easily has its measure, welding the multifarious influences, from Offenbach to Liszt, into as convincing a whole as I have ever heard.
His reading of the New World is every bit as winning, demonstrating Nelsons’s ability to look hard at familiar, highly-respected repertoire, and come up with novelty as well as integrity. The highly-nuanced performance of the first movement balances moments of almost visceral savagery in the slow introduction with beguiling lyricism in the main Allegro, notably the secondary material. Given its origins in sketches for an opera based on Longfellow’s Hiawatha, Nelsons’s decidedly dramatic approach to the famous Largo seems entirely appropriate. The ‘big tune’ is played with affecting simplicity and throughout the movement there is a strong lyrical and narrative thread; crucially, the reading never tips over into sentimentality.
The Scherzo has astonishing drive with some thrillingly ear-catching string detail underpinning the opening woodwind melody and the Trio has captivatingly dance-like quality. The sense of a story being told which marked the Largo is also evident in the Finale which again possesses an almost operatic quality. Nor does Nelsons neglect the formal aspects: in a movement that can often deteriorate into a potpourri of reminiscences from earlier in the Symphony, he maintains a strong sense of argument. At every stage in this performance, the listener is compelled to reappraise a familiar masterpiece. All in all, this is a stunning interpretation with constantly rewarding orchestral playing, as well as excellent recorded sound, which offers a complement to Marin Alsop’s magnificent 2008 reading on Naxos.