Dvorak: Symphony No 9

0 of 5 stars

Symphony No.9 “From the New World”
Concert Overture – Othello

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Claudio Abbado

Reviewed by: Geoff Diggines

Reviewed: December 2000
CD No: DG 457 651-2

Any new recording at full-price of Dvorak’s last symphony has to have very special qualities if it is to compete with the many existing recordings of this ever-popular work.

The ’New World’, because it is such standard repertoire, is performed too-often as a familiar ’warhorse’, resulting in many regular performances on and off record. I recall admirable (long deleted) LP versions conducted by Jorda, Horenstein and Schmidt-Isserstedt, which were memorable because they seemed to understand the specific sound and idiom of the work: dramatic but not melodramatic or streamlined; symphonic, but permeated by Czech rhythmic inflections, rustic woodwind tone and warm but flexible strings. The Czech Philharmonic under Talich, Ancerl and others understand this intrinsically. No version I know has such panache and humorous rhythmic drive as Ancerl’s Supraphon recording.

The new Abbado, recorded live in May 1997, begins with a beautifully realised account of the Othello overture – the lyrical and dramatic aspects of the musical narrative are juxtaposed with consummate skill and finesse. Abbado’s reading of the symphony is likewise delivered with great insight into the work’s structural configurations. The dramatic interruptions into the first movement’s Adagio opening are perfectly realised without being overstated or too loud. The main Allegro is full-toned with the second subject making its lyrical effect without any need to slow. As one would expect, Abbado correctly observes the dramatic notes leading to the exposition repeat. Most of the older school of conductors ignored this repeat, with the exception of Klemperer; Toscanini observed it in a 1940s concert performance but not in his famous 1953 recording.

Abbado’s account of the famous Largo is measured and meticulous, never sounding slow. The unanimous, sustained precision and beauty of the Berlin strings comes into its own here. The scherzo – with echoes of Beethoven 9’s prominent timpani interjections from its scherzo – Abbado keeps rhythmically alive, although, ironically, I would have welcomed more from the timpani. For a far more exuberant rendition, listen to the wonderful Ancerl or the recent Harnoncourt (Teldec) with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. Compared with Ancerl, Abbado’s woodwinds sound far too urbane. Abbado’s finale is again well structured and symphonically powerful, although I would have liked more of the con fuoco emphasised. Abbado’s constraint is admirable but sometimes more drama is required.

Overall, Abbado’s is one of the most distinguished of recent versions. I would marginally prefer Harnoncourt, which is more detailed, idiomatic and slightly more naturally balanced – DG’s recording has a tendency to glare in the higher registers. Of the older recordings, Ancerl and the Czech Phil are hard to beat, Reiner’s Chicago version is still distinctive in its straightforward way as is, more surprisingly, Klemperer’s with the Philharmonia, and Kertesz’s respected LSO version is especially attractive at budget price. As well as the Othello overture, Kertesz also contains Carnival. I would have thought DG could have included an additional piece – 58 minutes is a little mean. Nevertheless Abbado is fresh, spontaneous and effective. Recommended.

Geoff Diggines’s benchmark recordings are:

  • Czech Philharmonic/Karel Ancerl – SUPRAPHON 1119982 011
  • Philharmonia/Otto Klemperer – EMI CDM 5 67033 2
  • LSO/Istvan Kertesz – DECCA 466 212-2
  • Chicago Symphony/Fritz Reiner – RCA 09026 62587-2
  • Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Nikolaus Harnoncourt -TELDEC 3984-25254-2

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