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


Having given the history of the "New World" in Part I, it seems wise to preface Part II with some words about how the symphony is constructed. The movements are:

I.    Adagio; Allegro molto
II.   Largo
III.  Scherzo: Molto vivace
IV. Allegro con fuoco

Unusually, every movement starts with an introduction. The first movement's is the most famous:  starts with a striking slow introduction that establishes the current of nostalgia for, or homesickness for, the composer's native Bohemia. Another reminder of this comes with the famotus flute solo -- or does it? Some have remarked on its similarity to "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," but this is not so much a quote as a paraphrase, so to speak; small bits of "Chariot" are elided into something new that mingles many flavors: African-America spiritual, yes, but also Native American music and Bohemian folk music, which share a pentatonic flavor.

Note that the famous melody in the longing-filled Largo, though the melody of a spiritual, "Goin' Home," did not become so until after Dvořák had composed it, after which one of his students adapted it to create said spiritual! The composer uses some of his themes in multiple movements; in particular, the finale weaves together many threads from the preceding three movements, but notably, the chordal brass theme that kicks off the Allegro section of the first movement reappears in both the second and third movements as well. So, though the character of each movement differs, as is the norm, careful listening reveals that this is a more tightly knit work than the average symphony. Knowing this helps in understanding the profusion of melodies and moods in the finale.

Below I consider another 21 recordings, bringing the total so far to 48.

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra; Marin Alsop (Naxos, 2007)

Alsop makes the first movement so thrilling that I really regret that she takes the exposition repeat. She tries to make it work by amping up the excitement around it, but I still find it unconvincing. The Largo is pretty great on its own terms; she makes most of the slow parts extremely legato. It's a very un-Czech take on it, and seems as unspontaneous as imaginable, but flows beautifully despite her slow tempos. The Scherzo also features superb tempo relationships. She does more overt tempo manipulations  in the finale, and they work superbly. The sound is demonstration quality, and the Baltimoreans hold their own with the best. Anybody who prefers the exposition repeat should put this high on their list of recent "New World"s to acquire.

I.    11:53
II.   12:00
III.    7:06
IV.  10:57

Czech Philharmonic Orchestra; Vladimir Ashkenazy (Ondine [orig. Exton], 1999)

Ashkenazy was the second non-Czech conductor to be Chief Conductor of the Czech Phil., which as always provides timbres of the perfect character. The solo clarinet is especially great. Ashkenazy skips the exposition repeat in this always moderate, naturally proportioned reading. I especially like his Scherzo trios, both their perfect tempo and the way he brings out an underlying string figure under the winds that comes back in the finale, a relationship I'd never noticed before. Excellent sound caps the many positive attributes of a most recommendable recording.

I:      9:12
II:   12:27
III:    7:57
IV:  11:18

New York Stadium Symphony Orchestra; Leonard Bernstein (Decca, 1953)

The New York Stadium Symphony Orchestra was basically just the NY Phil. Unlike Bernstein's later "New World" recordings, this one doesn't have the exposition repeat. Also unlike Bernstein's later "New World" recordings, it's not a freak show. The orchestra's sound and Bernstein's interpretation are not Bohemian in style, but this is well done -- better, for example, than the Fricsay reviewed in Part I. The first movement is dramatic without being especially rushed, he Largo is taken at a leisurely but unextreme pace that, if not so much emotive as pretty in a way intended to convey an idea of emotion, still manages to convey the movement's mood, albeit not as vividly as in the top recommendations. The Scherzo is brisk without seeming rushed, the finale is not especially eccentric and is well-proportioned. Thoroughly enjoyable, albeit not a top choice.

I:      8:51
II:   13:33
III:    7:16
IV:  11:33

New York Philharmonic; Leonard Bernstein (Columbia, 1962)

Even though I give movement timings, I understand their limits -- but look at the time for the first movement here and then consider that he takes the exposition repeat. Yes, Lenny races through that movement like a madman. Then he stretches the Largo like taffy, producing a parody of emoting. It's back to the races for the Scherzo, where even the trios are dashed through. The virtuosity of the New  York Phil. in executing his demands is certainly impressive in its way. Then he puts together a fairly normal finale, where his tempo shifts work quite well, though there's a real doozy saved for last: a massive slowdown just before the last bit. Oh, and of course he holds the last chord for a good 12 seconds. This performance seems to be more about Bernstein than Dvořák; there's not an ounce of Bohemian feeling in it, just the exhibition of a flashy orchestral spectacle.

I:    11:00
II:   14:35
III:    6:25
IV:  10:55

Israel Philharmonic; Leonard Bernstein (Deutsche Grammophon, 1986)

Another example of the movement times telling the story. This is the longest version by far. The slow introduction to the first movement has never been slower -- but then he launches into a normal tempo. It's bizarre. He takes the exposition repeat but somehow, after the shock of the intro tempo, it's as though there's no flow for Lenny to interrupt, so why not repeat? Also, given the length of the Largo, he's got to pad the first movement to not throw the overall proportions even more out of whack. Israel Phil. strings shriek a bit at some high climaxes, alas. At the crawling speed of the Largo, the big English horn solo loses all emotional impact. Also, the tone here is a bit strange; it almost sounds like two horns at times. Could Lenny have asked for that? Even if he didn't, and I'm hearing things, this tempo is a travesty, psychically painful to slog through. Grace notes are so long that they don't really fit the definition! It's as though Lenny wanted the movement to be a funeral march -- or by Mahler, or both. In contrast, he takes off like a bat out of hell in the Scherzo, the orchestra barely able to keep up at his frenzied tempo. Even the trio is faster than usual, though not quite so exaggerated. After that things are almost normal for a while; he pulls tempi about but almost within normal bounds, albeit still rather exaggerated. So what has he got in store for us in the finale? Quite a bit of pomp, but mostly normal (not unlike in 1962), though a bit slow just before the big finish. (Oh, and a probable world-record 16-second final chord.) But, what with most of the preceding movements giving us a funhouse-mirror distortion of Dvořák's masterpiece, this performance is impossible to recommend except to connoisseurs of the musically perverse. (BTW, supposedly this is a concert recording, but there's no sonic evidence buttressing that claim.)

I:   12:30
II:  18:22
III:   7:06
IV: 12:10

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra; Colin Davis (Philips, 1977)

Takes the exposition repeat, after a long pause; the suspense makes it work better than usual. Bland, tepid Largo. Okay Scherzo. Pretty good finale, but still a bit generic. There's nothing incompetent here, but neither is there anything interesting.

I:    11:40
II:   12:30
III:    7:41
IV:  10:37

Houston Symphony; Christoph Eschenbach (Virgin Classics, 1990)

Well recorded, with a very powerful sound. Makes the exposition repeat not seem so awkward. But before I've even gotten through the first movement, I've heard several moments where Eschenbach goes for an expressive tempo adjustment or a between-sections pause and doesn't quite pull it off, sounding a tad contrived and over-thought. He goes for slow and sensitive in the Largo, but watery clarinet tone disappoints and the first section eventually becomes nearly inert. Interestingly, he plays the second section nearly as slowly, then speeds up ever so slightly, tying the sections together rather than contrasting them. Here, the tone of the clarinets turns slightly steely, not an improvement. At tempos this slow, there's an interesting effect when I really concentrate; I find myself rooting for it to work, which sort of helps it to work in that it creates some musical version of suspension of disbelief -- and Eschenbach is a good enough conductor that he just barely keeps the lines' tension going, which at this tempo really is quite a feat. When the chirpy winds herald the movement's big climax at a more normal tempo, the feeling of relief is palpable, but then of course it sinks back down, though not quite to the previous crawl. The clarinets' steely tone intrudes in the Scherzo's trios, which Eschenbach also takes rather slowly; here, the contrast with the rest is too great for my tastes. The finale finds the phrasing/joins problems of the first movement intruding slightly at times, though less; a few accompaniment figures feel slightly stilted at the same time they are slightly overemphasized in the texture. This is an interesting interpretation, but the small details mentioned keep it from being a top recommendation.

I:    12:21
II:   14:30
III:    7:54
IV:   11:09

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra; Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Teldec, 1999)

This knocked my socks off! Harnoncourt is of course known primarily as a conductor of original-instruments performances of Baroque and Classical (and early Romantic, e.g. Beethoven) works, but he sure has the measure of this piece. He mostly plays it in a fiery Czech style (he even makes the RCO sound Czech!), but lingers over the Largo deliciously. He takes the exposition repeat and seems to positively revel in its disruptive effect, making that part of the point, and damned if it doesn't work. Of course, at the lickety-split tempos he takes in the first movement, he still gets through it all in only slightly more time than many folks who don't take the repeat. He holds the final chord, with the woodwinds dominating. (Until I did all this comparison listening, I'd never quite realized the amount of variety that crops up in different conductors' takes on the piece's last few seconds.) This is one of the great performances, with spectacular in-your-face sonics.

I:    11:23
II:   12:17
III:    8:20
IV:  10:52

Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra; Erich Leinsdorf (Capitol/EMI Classics, 1958)

Though this is the shortest rendition I own, it doesn't seem extreme. There is plenty of tempo contrast in the first movement (no exposition repeat, of course), and although the pace in some sections is obviously quick (overall it's just one second off my fastest, by Kabasta), it never seems rushed. It's some accents (especially from the brass) that startle, rather than the speed. Nor does the Largo (just six seconds slower than my fastest, by Ancerl) seem rushed, and touches of portamento help make sure the movement's emotional impact is not lost. It's less easy to compare speeds in the Scherzo given the variety of repeat options available (I haven't focused on this aspect, since unlike the first-movement repeat, I have no strong feelings one way or another), but still, it's clear that Leinsdorf's zipping through the movement; nonetheless, the trios offer sufficient contrast, and the liveliness is effective. The finale is the only movement in which Leinsdorf's my quickest rendition (despite being one of the long-final-chord guys, and he makes that work fabulously), and though the LAPO of this era sounds like it just barely makes it through some of his speeds with ensemble coherence intact, it always -- the strings in particular -- rises to the occasion when the big emotive moments call for rich tone. I do wish, though, that he'd gotten to re-record this piece when he was music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (1962-69). Oddly, the BSO didn't make a studio recording of the "New World" until 1972!

I:     8:20
II:  10:33
III:   7:02
IV:  10:11

London Philharmonic Orchestra; Zdeněk Mácal (Seraphim/EMI Classics, 1980)

This Czech conductor gets the LPO to sound less British (especially -- and I know this seems paradoxical -- the English horn soloist, who's very good, and phrases beautifully), but the engineer's up-close sound is a bit of a turnoff in the loudest moments. He takes the exposition repeat and isn't the worst at doing so, but is far from the best. I really like his tempo relationships in the Largo, which flows very naturally even while making distinct shifts. The following movements are also fine, crowned by a hold on the final chord that fades away beautifully. Despite the aggressive sonics, at its former budget price, this is quite a bargain (and though a new one on Amazon is no longer the bargain the Seraphim line was supposed to be, well, you can get one for $1.41 the last time I looked, and it's surely worth that plus shipping).

I:    11:38
II:   11:18
III:    7:55
IV:  10:52

Prague Symphony Orchestra; Charles Mackerras (Supraphon, 2005)

A concert recording. Born of Australia parents in the United States and coming to fame in England, Mackerras studied conducting with Václac Talich in Prague and became a highly regarded specialist in  Czech music. This orchestra certainly has the Czech sound, with wonderful clarinet tone. Mackerras takes the exposition repeat, and it's not too disruptive, relatively speaking, though other have handled it better and I still prefer that it be skipped. Effective first movement with no missteps. At first I thought the Largo was missing emotion, but he was saving it until the end, which is effective. Tempo proportions in the Scherzo are somewhat wide, but apt. The finale is a thrill ride, with excellent brass, but Mackerras also gives the more tender moments their due, so all the proper contrasts are there. The final chord is held long, the brass dominating, with a perfectly proportioned decrescendo for its length. This is an excellent reading, not quite as characterful as the very top recommendations but with enough distinctive points to be interesting.

I:    11:19
II:   12:17
III:    7:19
IV:  11:24

New York Philharmonic Orchestra; Kurt Masur (Teldec, 1991)

Masur not only takes the exposition repeat, he handles it pretty abruptly. The work's final chord is held for a whopping 11 seconds. Basically an okay reading other than those things, especially given that it's a concert recording, but it sounds generic. It's now budget priced on Teldec's Apex line.

I:    12:13
II:   12:48
III:    7:55
IV:  11:11

New Philharmonia Orchestra; Riccardo Muti (EMI Classics, 1976)

Immediately striking the way Muti draws out the slow intro for maximum foreboding. More prominent timpani than usual, but it works with his approach. Disappointingly blowzy brass; the first time they state the theme, they're flat; after the exposition repeat, they have a second go at it and they're sharp. Good clarinet sound for these Brits, though. The dramatic and emotional sections of the finale are sharply contrasted as they pass briskly. Muti's approach in the outer movements is interesting; I wish this were with a Czech orchestra. Even so, still worth hearing at least once.

I:    12:00
II:   11:10
III:    7:41
IV:  10:43

Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra; Libor Pešek (Basic Classics, 1983) also on Naxos

A Czech conductor who studied with Ančerl. No exposition repeat, and his interpretation's good, but this performancestumbles in the Largo, where the English horn solo is odd in tone and consistently slightly off pitch – and the trumpet is wildly under pitch.

I:      8:52
II:   11:44
III:    7:59
IV:  11:28

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra; Libor Pešek (Virgin Classics, 1987)

I've dissed the Brits in Dvorak, but under Pešek's direction (he'd become the RLPO's principal conductor a month before this recording), this band at least acquits itself with grace and good tone. This time out, Pešek takes the exposition repeat, though it's not too bad in his hands. The first movement is gently lyrical, and even the climatic finish is restrained compared to many, though of course compared to what's just been played, the contrast is fine. The English horn (Lynn Brierley is credited) sounds better than the previous recording, but the Largo is too mellow; slower this time, it doesn't quite drag, but it doesn't spark any emotion either. If only his 1983 interpretation could have been performed by this ensemble…but then, how much was his interpretation influenced by the orchestra's proclivities and capabilities? In the Scherzo, the trios are very slow; at some points, they would be impossible to dance to. Also, here the clarinet tone turns a bit steely. In the finale, the brass are superb. If only they'd been around for Muti's recording 11 years earlier and a bit to the south. Again, Pešek takes every opportunity to mellow out. It's not a very compelling reading.

I:    11:59
II:   12:20
III:    8:02
IV:  11:50

Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Fritz Reiner (RCA Victor Living Stereo, 1957)

Reiner was born in Budapest in 1888, at which time it was in the same empire as the composer's Bohemia, and turns in a reading similar to Szell's with Cleveland two years later: driven, exciting, but still tender enough in the Largo to not be missing the point. I think the ever so slightly more relaxed feel of Reiner's Largo is better, and he was certainly given more vivid sonics by one of the best recording teams in history (producer Richard Mohr, engineer Lewis Layton) than Szell ever got. Maybe the blaring Chicago brass are captured a little too vividly! No exposition repeat, but there are a few tempo relationships in the first movement that intervene in the flow a bit too self-consciously. I'm not fond of how the brass punch out the first theme in the finale, and then the countermelody that follows, in detached fashion, but it's all part of Reiner's dramatic approach. The clarinets sound great, though. Verdict overall: Not perfect, but exciting.

I:      8:42
II:   12:24
III:    7:33
IV:  10:28

Dvořák Festival Orchestra of New York; Steven Richman (Music & Arts, 1997)

This is from the Dvořák Day Monument Dedication Concert of Sept. 13, 1997, when a statue of the composer was dedicated in Stuyvesant Square Park, across the street from 327 East 17th Street, where he composed the "New World." I wasn't expecting much from a pickup orchestra, but a pickup orchestra drawn from "members of the Metropolitan Opera, New York Philharmonic, Prague Symphony, NYC Opera, NYC Ballet, Mostly Mozart Festival, and Janáček Philharmonic Orchestras" is clearly lacking neither in chops nor in folks who've played it before. One of the Prague Symphony Orchestra musicians heard here is its English hornist Iveta Bachmannová, who shines on her solo in the Largo. This performance is also notable because Richman went back to Dvořák's manuscript and restored some "original notes, rhythms, dynamics, and expression marks that had been altered by various editors over the past century." What is most noticeable is that the version we're familiar with simplified some rhythms that, in this vivid performance, add extra verve and detail. It helps, of course, that Richman leads a nearly flawless concert performance of a thoroughly enjoyable interpretation. I even didn't mind the exposition repeat. Anyone whose collection includes more than a few "New World" recordings needs to make room for this one.

I:    11:47
II:   12:15
III:    8:00
IV:  11:20

Philadelphia Orchestra; Wolfgang Sawallisch (EMI Seraphim, 1988)

Sawallisch takes the exposition repeat, not especially well. Good clarinet tone. Largo's slower than he can make it work. In the Scherzo, the transition into the first trio also drags. Sawallisch seems to be aiming to make his "New World" as pretty as possible, and it sounds very un-Czech.

I:    12:13
II:   12:41
III:    7:48
IV:  10:34

Hamburg Radio Symphony Orchestra; Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt (Telefunken/Decca, 1955)

No exposition repeat. For those who want a kinder, gentler "New World," but with more character than Sawallisch musters. The Hamburgers certainly sound good in this mono recording. Schmidt-Isserstedt's approach works well in the Largo, of course, though sometimes one wonders whether Schmidt-Isserstedt can sustain the line -- but he always manages to, albeit sometimes just barely (but then, he's 1:23 slower than Sawallisch, who couldn't). The strings slide into some notes in a way that was very anachronistic by this time, and thus all the more welcome. Schmidt-Isserstedt does increase the intensity for the finale (the last chord of which lingers for nearly ten seconds!). For those who don't want to have to track down the original vinyl (which is what I listened to for this review), this performance has been reissued in a Tahra box set, The Telefunken Recordings, the sonic quality of which is unknown to me. This is not a crucial performance, but it's certainly superior to those of other German conductors around this time.

I:      9:42
II:   14:04
III:    8:18
IV:  10:48

NBC Symphony Orchestra; Arturo Toscanini (RCA Victor, 1953)

This performance is rushed, projecting a certain intensity, but not of feeling or emotion so much as just tightness. Too abstract, even given touches of string portamento in the Largo. Not perfectly played either; there are brief moments of tuning trouble here and there. The Scherzo is pretty great, though. Then the finale is overly terse, and the timpani rather more emphasized than usual. The ending is anti-climatic. No exposition repeat. Not even worth hearing aside from the Scherzo.

I:      8:30
II:   10:35
III:    7:24
IV:  10:15

Columbia Symphony Orchestra; Bruno Walter (Columbia/Sony Classical, 1959)

Walter takes the second theme in the first movement notably slower than the first, then accelerates it slightly, though not enough for my tastes. (No exposition repeat.) It is perhaps telling that the booklet notes for CD reissue of this and Dvořák's Eighth is entirely about Walter's relationship with Hans Pfitzner rather than anything to do with Dvořák; Walter had no connection to Dvořák or his music, nor any particular feeling for it. Though there is nothing egregiously wrong with this performance, neither is it especially distinguished, except by Walter's always reliable feeling, at this point late in his life (he died three years later), for autumnal Weltschmerz; the Largo is wonderfully tender (though the lower brass sound a bit queasy just before the end). The Scherzo is a bit stiff, even a little shaky at times (usually in the Trios), though it never quite goes off the rails. Of course, the Columbia Symphony Orchestra was just a pseudonym for whatever pickup group Columbia put together for Walter to front, and on the West Coast, where this was recorded, it was less reliable, and seemingly less familiar with this music, than a similar East Coast band would have been. The lack of rhythmic limberness particularly damages the finale; the first theme in particular is not approached with the rhythmic acuity that would give it the verve it needs, and thus the second theme, to contrast it, needs to be even slower, and frankly it just bogs down at times. The closing peroration is effective, and Walter clearly has a good grasp at least of the work's subtle structure; I wish he had recorded the "New World" earlier in his life, in particular with the New York Philharmonic -- I suspect it would have come off much better than this labored product of a four-day session.

I:      9:27
II:   12:05
III:    8:13
IV:  12:14

I'll wrap up this survey in Part III with recordings by Paavo Järvi, Václav Neumann, and Gennady Rozhdestvensky, another by Istvan Kertesz, two by Lorin Maazel, five by Leopold Stokowski, an earlier one by George Szell, and at least two from Václav Talich, any more I track down between now and then, plus a summary of the best. - 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.