One day many years ago, I was in a London record shop; the proprietor put an LP on his turntable and said “listen to this”. It was Karel Ančerl’s recording of Dvořák’s Sixth Symphony and I heard a most wonderfully gracious unfolding of the music; an aural equivalent of a beautiful sunrise. Allegro non tanto is the marking and Ančerl judged it perfectly, moving purposefully forward without hurry. Listening to the beginning of this reading by James Gaffigan I received exactly the same impression and felt that that this fine work was about to be to be interpreted with great sensitivity.
This is one of the most classically constructed of Dvořák’s Symphonies. One of the composer’s characteristics is that he sometimes creates more than one second subject in a sonata movement and so it is here. The ease with which one melody moves naturally to the next is clearly illuminated by the conductor. Dvořák had this deep respect for the classical era and Gaffigan understands that. The Symphony comes from the romantic era however, so he shapes the melodies with care and warmth. In the 14 first-time bars which represent the long return to the exposition repeat the conductor is especially mindful of this carefully crafted episode (it is always a disappointment when these bars are lost as a result of omitting the repeat). Interestingly Gaffigan plays the beginning of the repeat more coolly than he did at its first appearance – but then as Leopold Stokowski once said: “it would be very dull if it were the same every time.”
The close of the first movement also typifies Gaffigan’s approach – there are dramatic changes of dynamic, and flashes of minor-keyed drama, but they make their point all the more effectively because this performance keeps to a steady, ongoing tempo and does not let the momentum change just because the musical feeling alters. Gaffigan’s sense of even flow applies also to the slow movement in which he is fairly broad – true there are moments when Dvořák marks the score with directions such as poco più animato for a few bars but this never disrupts the even flow because the conductor makes these moments no more than a simple underlining of a new mood.
The scherzo, a Furiant is here full of joie de vivre. I have heard performances that make more of the sudden drum crescendo leading to the restatement of the main theme but in general the timpani are never shy. I have often wondered why Dvořák marked the trio section Poco meno mosso and am not sure whether the sprinkling of in tempo markings means a return to the original Presto. No matter, Gaffigan has the solution, because at the trio his arching lead into it modifies the rhythm so that when the main theme emerges a change of speed is not obvious. This is an extensive trio and Dvořák’s instruction to accelerate into the return of the Furiant is convincingly represented.
The finale is compellingly urgent – instructions at the frequent return of the main theme such as Tempo primo and Grandioso are not allowed to impede its development. There are many performances of this splendid Symphony which are essentially ‘Czech’ in nature; of existing recordings, those by Ančerl, Bělohlávek, Kubelík and Šejna among others merit such a description but here a Swiss orchestra under an American conductor comes very close indeed to Dvořák’s intentions – and that it is certainly ‘Czech’ enough for me.
The American Suite is a straightforward affair. The title was not applied until well into the 20th-century but it is suitably descriptive. Composed near the end of Dvořák’s stay in the States when reputedly he was homesick, it is hardly surprising that the clearly American, and even American-Indian, themes have Bohemian turns of phrase incorporated into them. Regardless of the origins of the melodies the third and fifth movements – a ‘Pollacca’ and a wild Slavonic dance respectively – sound a very long way East of America. The opening movements are comfortingly tuneful but the ‘Pollacca’ is cheerful rather than inspired and all credit to Gaffigan for giving strength to a movement that is merely a nicely-orchestrated salon piece – the Suite was originally for piano before being orchestrated in 1894 just before the composer left for home.
This long-established orchestra which, confusingly for English readers, is referred to in the booklet as the “LSO” was founded in 1806. It is reasonable to describe its quality as ‘Germanic’ and at times I hear reminiscences of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra when it comes to fullness of tone. The venue is the KKL (Culture and Convention Centre, Lucerne) which has a warm acoustic and a nicely even die-away. The recording successfully captures a big-orchestra sound – suitable because Dvořák 6 is certainly a big Symphony.
Above all, here is a conductor with whose work I was unfamiliar but his interpretation of Dvořák’s music shows great sympathy for the composer. Although James Gaffigan’s seems to concentrate on contemporary and romantic repertoire, I feel that his unaffected style and clear understanding of symphonic structure means that he could also bring something special to music of the Classical period.