A Comparative Listening Survey of Dvořák's Ninth Symphony, Part I

Dvořák (1841-1904), from Bohemia (at the time, part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and later in Czechoslovakia) peppered his colorful, amiable music with folk rhythms. The Ninth, subtitled "From the New World" and inspired by and written during his time in the United States, is Dvořák’s most beloved symphony and contains both Bohemian and American influences. Prompted by the current exhibit of the work's original manuscript in New York City at the Bohemian National Hall, I have followed up my review of Jiří Bĕlohlávek's new Dvořák symphony cycle box set on Decca and his concert with the Czech Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall with a trawl through my collection of "New World" recordings, selectively augmented by streaming recordings available on Rdio.com.

There is much debate concerning the materials of the Ninth. The composer himself said that its middle movements were intended to depict scenes from Longfellow's narrative poem The Song of Hiawatha, of which Dvořák was a fan long before he came here to be director of the National Conservatory of Music in 1892-95. It was in New York City, though, that he was introduced to the sound of African-American music, particularly spirituals, which his assistant and protégé, Henry Thacker Burleigh (1866-1949), sang for him (songs Burleigh had learned from his grandfather, an ex-slave). Dvořák also spent the summer of 1893 living in Iowa, where he got to hear Native American music. The overlap between these two styles is the pentatonic scale, which figures in the "New World," though he stressed that he had not quoted any of this material, just embodied its feeling. It has also been said, though not by him, that part of the work's inspiration was probably homesickness for Bohemia. There is no reason why it can't be both, just as the American-inspired aspects of the symphony sit alongside obviously Bohemian elements.

Below, moving in alphabetical order by conductor, I say a few things (sometimes more, sometimes less) about each recording and provide the movement timings and whether or not the conductor takes the exposition repeat. There are the dogmatic types who insist that every repeat should be taken; there are the practical types who, in particular when it comes to exposition repeats, take it on a case-by-case basis. I'm the latter, and this is one of the cases where no exposition repeat is preferable, because structurally it flows better that way.

Czech Philharmonic; Karel Ančerl (Supraphon, 1961)

Compared to another famously brisk-tempoed recording, Ančerl holds back slightly more than Cleveland-era Szell in the first movement (no repeat) but loses none of its tension. Frankly, the Czech Phil. sounds better than the Clevelanders, both in playing and recording quality (at least on the Gold Edition version I have). The second movement has more of a Mendelssohnian delicacy, making it by turns more mysterious and more emotional. When the lower strings have the second theme, it's ethereal. The woodwinds are echt-Czech, with every solo sounding individualistic. The highly pointed rhythms in the finale give it a whole different tone than the norm. Everybody can make it exciting, but Ančerl makes it suspenseful. The level of detail is spectacular, but never seems over-thought or stifling -- quite the opposite. This is one of the must-own renditions of the "New World."

I:     9:10
II:  11:34
III:   7:52
IV: 11:21

Czech Philharmonic Orchestra; Karel Ančerl (Aura, 1958)

Brilliant, of course, and even faster and more fiery than three years later, but this concert recording is a distant and thus the quiet moments lack the intense visceral impact of the studio recording. It's cheap enough that Ančerl fans will want to hear this thrill ride anyway, though at times it's a bit hectic. No exposition repeat, obviously. Boy are the brass characterful at the beginning of the finale! (Maybe too much for delicate sensibilities.)

I:       8:48
II:   10:27
III:    7:34
IV:  10:27

Czech Philharmonic; Jiří Bĕlohlávek (Decca, 2013)

The slow movement is given a very tender reading, yet never bogs down as Bĕlohlávek and the Czech Phil. -- so familiar with this piece -- play it so lovingly that it instead wafts gently. The entire reading is warmly affectionate, which is not to say that there is not drama in all the right places. Aside from the tempo in that slow movement, there is nothing unusual about this reading, no straining for effects or parading distinctive quirks for the sake of attention, but neither is there anything rote about it. While listening to it, one thinks, "Yes, this is how it should go." Excellent sonics as well.

I:      9:55
II:   12:46
III:    8:17
IV:  11:53

Czech Philharmonic; Jiří Bĕlohlávek (Supraphon, 1989)

Bĕlohlávek's earlier shot at the piece for Supraphon is fine but less distinctive. On the other hand, those who find his Decca tempos too slow might prefer this one, which has much the same merits, especially the beautifully inflected, languorous Largo (though not drawn out as much as 24 years later). Sound, while excellent, is not quite as crystalline as in 2013 either. Still, an excellent reading in the Czech tradition.

I:      9:35
II:   12:05
III:    8:08
IV:  11:39

American Symphony Orchestra; Leon Botstein (American Symphony Orchestra, 2007?)

This concert recording gets off to a poor start with clumsy phrasing of the slow introduction. Once things get faster and louder, the sound is clotted and either Botstein can't keep a steady tempo or he has some extremely eccentric ideas about the rhythm, rubato, or both. An accompanying figure drowns out the flute's melody at one point. And of course Botstein, academic that he is, takes the exposition repeat, but in the most perfunctory manner possible, making an always difficult moment not only jarring but outright annoying. The trumpets have a brief but glaring tuning problem. During the movement's climax, the timpani threaten at first to overwhelm everyone else, and then when they don't, it becomes clear that the ensemble's come unsprung. I only went on to the Largo to see how bad it would be; expecting the worst, I was not disappointed: the English horn delivers the least expressive reading of the famous tune I have ever heard, or could even imagine. After some more pulling about of the tempo, to no expressive effect, a horrific French horn flub and some audience coughs punctuated the horror, after which everybody returned to the apparent goal of seeing how much the tempos could be randomly mismatched from one phrase to the next without causing an actual breakdown. It was already obvious that I could never, ever recommend this recording, not even to my worst enemy, but listening had begun to take on a certain ghoulish allure: how bad could it get? However, it merely became boring. The Scherzo was actually competent for a moment, though the distant and muddy sound still made it less than pleasant to listen to. Then some accompaniment phrasing was over-emphasized in a grim caricature of the composer's intentions, and began to make me seasick. I was repeatedly amused by the bringing to the fore of the triangle. By this point I was past caring about detailing lapses in pitch and intonation. Another stretch of competence tided me over until right near the end of the movement, where an over-emphasized moment sounded like the strings scratching an irritating itch. The finale erupted in a burst of over-accenting and lunging phrasing. I thought about giving up with less than seven minutes to go, but toughed it out to the end, glorying in such details as the least convincing crescendo-with-climactic-emphasis ever. But the band had its momentum up, and so did I, and thus the last three minutes went by with a certain sense of excitement. The horns and trombones even stayed in tune all the way to the end, including both exposed horn passages. Botstein ginned up some drama just before the finish by drastically speeding up, then for contrast (I assumed intention, though by this point I wasn't sure why) held the final chord interminably. I will never, ever listen to this performance again, and I apologize for going on about it for so long when I've been discussing vastly superior performances at a fifth this length, but this distant an outlier to all that is musical seemed to deserve, if that is the word, documentation sufficient to make you heed my warning: Do not listen to this, or you will be sorry.

I:    11:39
II.   11:16
III:    7:35
IV:   10:57

[Released in 2010 but possibly recorded earlier; 2007 is the year of a concert program including the "New World." I don't have a physical copy of this and can find no evidence that it was ever released physically; I found it on Rdio.com, where there is a large series of ASO concert recordings, all with the same photo of Botstein and the same design elements.]

Berlin Philharmonic; Ferenc Fricsay (Deutsche Grammophon, 1969)

Blowzy brass and a mannered way with the first movement (tempo shifts feel unorganic) are disappointing coming from this usually reliable cult favorite conductor. He delivers a very tender Largo, though, albeit still somewhat Germanic in tone -- sometimes the brass sound Wagnerian; I expect Siegfried to appear on the horizon. That said, this is still a deeply affecting Largo. I'm less happy with the Scherzo, where tempo contrasts are highly exaggerated. The brassy sound works for the finale.

I:   10:03
II:  13:54
III:   8:14
IV: 12:01

[Note that I have a budget Belart CD; late last year a Blu-ray edition appeared that Fanfare's reviewer said had improved sound.]

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra: Carlo Maria Giulini (Sony)

Too damn slow.

I:    10:11
II:   15:26
III:    8:21
IV: 12:59

Scottish National Orchestra; Neeme Järvi (Chandos, 1986)

Takes the exposition repeat, so immediately I don't like it. Sounds generic, not at all Czech. The Largo is leaden and lifeless. Frankly, couldn't bring myself to listen to the rest, it already being so unrecommendable by that point.

I:    12:26
II:   13:01
III:    7:52
IV:  11:15

Munich Philharmonic; Oswald Kabasta (Music & Arts, 1944)

Austrian conductor Oswald Kabasta (1896-1946), who committed suicide when it became obvious that his Nazi party membership was a career-killer after WWII ended, was Music Director of the Munich Philharmonic from 1938 to 1945. This performance is included on a two-CD set of recordings made for broadcast by German radio, and uses the official tapes. Kabasta's explosive reading of the "New World" will not be to all tastes with its drastic tempo shifts and at times extreme speeds (the timing of the first movement might suggest moderation, but listening tells a different story!), but it's certainly exciting. No exposition repeat. Sound is somewhat congested in loud passages, strings blare at times, there's a pitch blip near the beginning of the Largo that sounds like a tape problem, and the audio quality suddenly and drastically deteriorates in the finale. By the way, Bavarian radio tapes were often bootlegged under spurious attributions by budget American labels in the '50s and '60s, and at times this performance was credited to Wilhelm Furtwängler.

I:      8:19
II:   11:21
III:    7:11
IV:  10:26

Berlin Philharmonic; Herbert von Karajan (Angel, 1958)

There are some awkward accents, phrasing, and transitions, and the Berliners had not yet reached the polished heights to which Karajan would take them in the next decade.

I:      9:43
II:   12:56
III:    8:12
IV:  11:06

Berlin Philharmonic; Herbert von Karajan (Deutsche Grammophon, 1964)

This was the first "New World" that I remember; the LP was in my parents' collection. Perhaps that colors my impression, but I still think it holds up pretty well. Karajan's tempi all work, both overall and proportionally to each other within movements. No exposition repeat. The same criticisms of the brass in Fricsey's version occasionally apply here, though crucially Karajan reins them in nicely during the Largo, which is a perfect example of the slow and quietly emotive way of doing it. The Scherzo's trio sections reveal the straight-toned clarinets to not sound very Bohemian, but that's not exactly a shock. The finale is shaped well, but the solo French hornist sounds slightly pinched at the top of his range and a few rhythmic figures don't quite have the limber ease I'm come to expect from the Czech Philharmonic's handling of them, but this is still overall the best German rendition of this piece that I have heard.

I:      9:18
II:   13:06
III:    8:13
IV:  10:58

Berlin Philharmonic; Herbert von Karajan (Deutsche Grammophon, 1985)

Karajan should have left well enough alone, but I suppose he or DG wanted a digital recording. Two decades on, it's a bit stiffer and doesn't quite have the lift to keep some of the slower tempos flowing. The Scherzo's trios are especially slow, which doesn't work, at least not as done here. The sound is a tad better, and the brass mellower in tone (which combine to make the dramatic, well-shaped finale quite a blockbuster), but those improvements are not enough for me to prefer this over his 1964 effort. (There are at least three more Karajan "New Worlds" -- 1940 on Polydor, reissued in a DG box; 1977 on EMI; and a 1966 film of rehearsals and performance -- but I don't have them.)

I:      9:58
II:   12:27
III:    8:36
IV:  11:25

London Symphony Orchestra; István Kertész (London, 1966)

Yes, it's a British Orchestra, but this Hungarian conductor (the first to record all nine Dvořák symphonies), a student of Kodaly, makes the winds sound almost Eastern European. He takes the opening at a very slow tempo, giving it a highly mysterious quality, before picking things up. He even manages to make taking the exposition repeat work. Everything about the interpretation is wonderful, but there are some sloppy bits of orchestral playing that didn't get cleaned up that nowadays would undoubtedly have been fixed -- nothing horrible, just brief passing moments of slight imperfection. I'm more than happy to live with them given the greatness of the interpretation. You might as well acquire this in the box set of the whole cycle, given its inexpensive price.

I:    12:30
II:   12:28
III:    7:25
IV: 11:18

Berlin State Opera Orchestra; Erich Kleiber (Naxos Historical, 1929)

Historically interesting, I suppose, but the sound is far worse than the older Stokowski, and Kleiber does crazy stuff with tempi (caveat: I have never enjoyed anything I've heard by him). I'm willing to cut him slack on some of the awful transitions in the context of the primitive recording technology and having to do it all in four-minute bits, but nonetheless this is very frustrating to listen to, and not recommended to anyone except aficionados of old-time conductors.

I:       9:30
II:   12:24
III:    8:20
IV: 11:20

Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra; Zdenĕk Košler (Opus, 1973)

No exposition repeat. Aside from occasionally blatty brass (though this aspect is well within the old norms for Eastern European ensembles, hence arguably authentic) and one incidence of sour strings, the orchestra is pretty good, but the conductor exaggerates tempo shifts, drastically in the finale. This could be said to fall within the parameters of hyper-Romantic conducting of the old style, so if that's what you go for, this could be to your taste. Distressingly, though, the opening of the Scherzo is clipped off.

I:       9:49
II:   12:18
III:    8:34
IV: 12:14

Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Rafael Kubelik (Mercury, 1951)

Yeah, this is a mono recording, but at the apex of mono recording technology -- not only is it no impediment to listening enjoyment, the Mercury Living Presence recording with a single Telefunken U47 microphone hung over the orchestra presents an extremely realistic sonic profile of the ensemble. No exposition repeat. The tremulous English horn in the Largo is rather fitting for the homesickness trope, and the woody clarinets underneath are aptly Eastern European in tone. Even though Kubelik takes the Largo faster than on subsequent recordings, the emotional impact comes through. The famous Chicago brass are on their best behavior here, with burnished tones and no blaring (though that wasn't really a problem until the Solti era). Kubelik zips through the Scherzo, slightly faster than I like at the beginning, but after that with good contrasts/proportions and perfect trio tempos, though I'd like the triangle to cut through a tad more. The finale is absolutely brilliant, right down to holding the last chord to what feels like the perfect length and no longer.

I:      8:41
II:   11:26
III:    7:26
IV: 10:34

Vienna Philharmonic; Rafael Kubelik (Decca, 1956)

Kubelik lived in exile from Czechoslovakia after the 1948 Communist coup, so it would be a long time before we got to hear him lead the home team. In the meantime there were experiences such as this -- the interpretation's pretty good, it isn't a bad performance exactly, but this orchestra's quirky sound seems weird applied to the "New World." I'm especially unfond of the weirdly articulating trombones, but there are also some odd string tremolos, and minor details occasionally pop out of the texture in a disconcerting way. Next time out in stereo, everything worked better, fortunately. (No exposition repeat.)

I:       9:10
II:   12:46
III:    7:37
IV:  11:11

Berlin Philharmonic; Rafael Kubelik (Deutsche Grammophon, 1972)

Much better, and with the Berliners' first chairs excelling -- that's presumably James Galway on the flute solos. Sound is also spectacular, and Kubelik's tempi are nowhere near as willful s in the next listing, and they all work wonderfully, sounding utterly natural. One of the best first movements on record (no repeat). The Largo here is much more emotive than in the next listing, with gorgeously mellow brass. (A little armchair psychology could lead one to think that actually being in exile from his -- and the composer's -- homeland would make its depiction here ring more true.) The Chicago recording has slightly more instrumental character, but this is the best stereo Kubelik I've got (there are more).

I:      9:32
II:   13:04
III:    8:08
IV:  11:51

Czech Philharmonic; Rafael Kubelik (Denon, 1990)

No exposition repeat, as usual with Kubelik. This is a concert recording (made after he had come out of retirement to return to by then free Czechoslovakia to lead the Czech Phil. in the Prague Spring Festival), so there are some tiny imperfections of execution. Mostly it's good, but Kubelik fiddles with tempos and I don't always agree with the results. Surprisingly, especially considering the home-coming circumstances, the Largo doesn't reveal its emotional core until near the end. The best movement is the finale, where Kubelik's mercurial tempi complement each other quite effectively. Here we hear all the emotion lacking in most of the Largo, as well as a good deal of terror and triumph. Not a top recommendation, but the finale is worth hearing.

I:        9:13
II:    12:30
III:     7:56
IV:  12:27

Bratislava Radio Symphony Orchestra; Ondrej Lenárd (Amadis, 1987)

Precision of execution is lacking at times.

I:      9:57
II:   11:23
III:    8:17
IV: 11:46

Danish National Orchestra; Nicolai Malko (RCA Victor Bluebird Classics, 1948?)

While Malko's take on the "New World" (no exposition repeat) is somewhat reserved, as was his conducting in general, his expansive Largo is more expressive here than on the following recording. The brass here are not always perfect, and the triangle in the Scherzo sounds a little weird, but for this era the orchestral standard on display is pretty darn good. The main point is that Malko's tempo relationships are pretty much perfect here (the Scherzo's especially interesting in that regard), the orchestra projects a quiet intensity that keeps the slow Largo from blandness, and having heard this I understand how Malko got his reputation.

I:      8:55
II:   13:41
III:    6:48
IV: 11:00

[I'm guessing that the LP I have (which contains no discographical information, not even a copyright), where the orchestra is listed as above, could be the 1948 one currently available on Danacord credited to the Danish State Broadcasting Orchestra, with which he seems to have had a fairly long relationship. Movement time are basically the same.]

Philharmonia Orchestra; Nicolai Malko (EMI Classics, 1956)

This competent but less compelling rendition is found on Great Conductors of the 20th Century 11, a series in which his inclusion was controversial. No exposition repeat. The Largo is bland until near the end, but I'm willing to put the blame for that on the Philharmonia given his superior take on this movement a dozen years before. EMI should have used the Danish "New World" instead of this one.

I:      8:50
II:   12:20
III:    6:54
IV: 10:25

Philadelphia Orchestra; Eugene Ormandy (Columbia Masterworks, 1956)

No exposition repeat. The strings sound great, of course, but the astringent English horn does not sound attractive in the Largo and the brass are anemic. The mono sound is okay. It's mostly a pretty good reading, but with a few odd tempo shifts that are mildly disconcerting.

I:      9:21
II:   13:11
III:    8:19
IV: 11:48

London Symphony Orchestra; Eugene Ormandy (Sony Classical, 1966)

No exposition repeat. Though the interpretation is lovely if perhaps slightly bland in quieter moments (the Largo often seems rote), this suffers from an eccentric mix that overly spotlights instruments and sections and overall seems too "hot." The LSO is also not quite the disciplined tool in Ormandy's hands that his Philadelphia Orchestra was, so there are occasional momentary slips in unity. The brass sometimes overpower everybody else, which sure wouldn't have happened in Philly.

I:      9:00
II:   13:18
III:    7:36
IV: 11:39

French National Radio Orchestra; Constantin Silvestri (Angel/EMI Classics, 1959)

This is in the super-bargain ICON box of 15 CDs that EMI issued last year for this Rumanian conductor's centenary (under $30 on Amazon, under $20 used). Having found an old Angel LP of Silvestri's Tchaikovsky "Pathetique" and enjoyed wallowing in the true pathos of its final movement, I was quite willing to spring for the box, which includes two "New World" recordings, this being the stereo one. Silvestri, a fanatic for in-depth rehearsal, makes this radio orchestra sound nearly first class (the only exception being the horns, and nothing's too egregious even in that department). Unsurprisingly, he lingers quite touchingly in the Largo, but touches on that bittersweetness in other movements as well. Related to that, he loves his tempo contrasts, so occasionally the proportions are striking, but except for one very slow trio in the Scherzo, they all work, and what he does with the end of the finale is amazing.

I:       8:57
II:    13:39
III:     8:08
IV:  10:52

French National Radio Orchestra; Constantin Silvestri (Angel/EMI Classics, 1957)

This earlier mono recording, also in the ICON box, is a rawer take on the piece, both in terms of Silvestri's interpretation and the orchestra's sound and execution (in particular, the brass got less punchy later; here they sometimes give the impression of blurting out their lines). Interesting for some interpretive differences, especially how the darker moments in the Largo come out much spookier, and the more old-fashioned portamento the strings occasionally display. Some emphatic rhythmic pointing in the Scherzo is distracting. The later stereo version trumps this.

I:     8:46
II:  11:41
III:   7:35
IV: 10:31

Cleveland Orchestra; George Szell (Epic/Sony, 1959)

A taut, thrilling reading, by a Hungarian conductor, that has long been considered one of the best (Szell's set of the last three Dvořák symphonies is a perpetual recommendation for them, and certainly good value). No exposition repeat. Much more dramatic and hard-driving than most, but quite effective on its own terms. Some might find it cold, emotionally and sonically.

I:      8:40
II:   12:10
III:    7:52
IV:  10:54
Update: Part II is up now! It includes three Bernstein recordings, two by Libor Pešek, and one each by Alsop, Ashkenazy, Colin Davis, Eschenbach, Harnoncourt, Leinsdorf, Mácal, Mackerras, Masur, Muti, Reiner, Richman, Sawallish, Schmidt-Isserstedt, Toscanini, and Bruno Walter. - Steve Holtje


Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor who recently composed and recorded the soundtrack for director Enrico Cullen's film A Man Full of Days.

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