Sunday, October 18, 2009

Sunday Classics: Dvořák's music isn't just music to love, it's music that loves you back


UPDATE, 9:05am ET: Crisis! The site that hosts the audio clips doesn't seem to be hosting at the moment. I don't think there's anything I can do except hope it spontaneously regains its equilibrium. (I thought it was too much to believe I'd actually gotten control of this process. Ha!) Well, you can still enjoy the "Song to the Moon."

UPDATE, 9:15am ET: Seems to be OK now. Don't ask me. (I don't plan to hold my breath though.)

Okay, I suppose the lip-synched visuals are kind of hokey, but in this undated German TV clip Lucia Popp (1939-1993) sings the daylights out of the water nymph's haunting "Song to the Moon" from Dvořák's Rusalka, in which Rusalka sings of her love for a handsome young prince -- one of those inter-life-form relationships that rarely seem to end well.
Silver moon upon the deep dark sky,
Through the vast night pierce your rays.
This sleeping world you wander by,
Smiling on men's homes and ways.
Oh moon ere past you glide, tell me,
Tell me, oh where does my loved one bide?
Oh moon ere past you glide, tell me
Tell me, oh where does my loved one bide?
Tell him, oh tell him, my silver moon,
Mine are the arms that shall hold him,
That between waking and sleeping he may
Think of the love that enfolds him,
May between waking and sleeping
Think of the love that enfolds him.
Light his path far away, light his path,
Tell him, oh tell him who does for him stay!
Human soul, should it dream of me,
Let my memory wakened be.
Moon, moon, oh do not wane, do not wane,
Moon, oh moon, do not wane....

by Ken

So, finally, we get to the long-delayed and much-previewed Dvořák piece. In case anyone's keeping track, I can report that back on January 17 I mentioned that that week's intended subject was being put on hold -- for a week, I thought at the time! By way of easing into the still-unnamed subject, I did some speculating on who might be "the world's greatest tunesmith," focusing that day on Puccini and the next day on Schubert.

The point was that when it comes to sheer melodic inspiration, this is the company in which I would place Dvořák. It's the top rank. And in the case of Rusalka's aria, his melodic and also harmonic radiance is equally apparent in the orchestral accompaniment, and this too is characteristic of the composer.

Which is practically a cue for the second-movement Largo of Dvořák's last symphony, From the New World, written during the spring and summer of the composer's first academic year in New York, 1892-93, as director of the new National Conservatory of Music. (The New World was long known as Symphony No. 5, but by now is securely established as No. 9, thanks to numerical fixes starting with the inclusion of four earlier, previously unnumbered symphonies.) For this post, after listening to the Largo in a sizable stack of New Worlds I have on CD, I was set to go with Bruno Walter's Columbia Symphony recording(the CD that coupled it with his lovely Eighth Symphony is hard to find now, and therefore expensive, but Amazon offers an MP3 download), until it was nosed out by one last contender, Otto Klemperer's EMI recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra (not available at all now except at silly prices).

Yes, this is the entire English horn part of the New World Symphony; note that the instrument "tacet" (is silent) in movements I, III, and IV.

You'll note that the English horn part begins with six bars of rest. (That's what that "6" over the printed rests at the very start means.) In those six bars you'll hear the kind of intensity and emotional resonance Dvořák could build out of such seemingly materials as the four-bar chorale for lower woodwinds and all the brasses, which offers a textbook demonstration of the fundamental process of harmonic "resolution," where the chords go through harmonies that tease the ear as it craves for those harmonies to "resolve" into a satisfactory "root" chord. When it finally does, Dvořák brings the timpani in, tapering off then to set the stage for a segue into a gentler string chorale. (The wind chorale recurs in varied forms at strategic points through the movement.) Shockingly, you'll hear conductors simply chug through these six opening bars as if they were mere filler inserted to delay the entrance of the English horn -- amazing.

As for that entrance of the English horn (or cor anglais, the slightly larger and deeper and significantly reedier and more plaintive cousin of the oboe; the English horn, as always needs to be pointed out, is neither English nor a horn), sounding that ineffably beautiful melody, you may be thinking that surely this melody is the Negro spiritual "Going Home"? Indeed it is. But as far as I know, the scholarly position is still that the spiritual borrowed the tune from Dvořák rather than vice versa. Clearly, though, the tune is in the spirit of the spiritual. During his time in the U.S., Dvořák made no secret of his admiration for the spiritual, which he thought could help form the basis for a truly American music.


I couldn't resist buying it (it was only $2.99 [note: and that includes a second CD containing the great cycle of overtures, In Nature's Realm, Carnival, and Othello, Opp. 91-93! -- Ed.]), and now I can't resist sharing it. Sometimes you can be blown away by a recording and it turns out it kind of hit you "just right." But as I was transferring it, I just listened again to the Largo in this 1999 recording of the New World Symphony by the Czech Philharmonic under pianist-turned-conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy, who was principal conductor of the orchestra from 1996 to 2003, and wow! It's a genuinely great performance, in authentically Czech orchestral colors, remarkably vivdly recorded (by a Japanese recording team, whose tape was subsequently licensed by the Finnish label Ondine,which has been recording and/or releasing Ashkenazy with several orchestras).

The case of "Going Home" isn't unique in Dvořák's output. Even now people probably tend to assume that those 16 glorious Slavonic Dances, of which we heard the second last week, are arrangements of folk melodies, as Brahms's Hungarian Dances, the obvious model for them, mostly are. In fact, the musical material is almost all original.

Like Brahms's Hungarian Dances, Dvořák's Slavonic Dances were written originally for piano duet. Brahms orchestrated some of his dances but doesn't seem to have felt any urgency about it. Almost immediately the Brahms dances began to be arranged for every imaginable combination. Dvořák, however, was systematic about orchestrating his dances, and while it's fun to hear them occasionally in the four-hand piano originals (and probably more fun to play them), I don't think there's any question that these amazing miniatures achieve their full stature in their full orchestral garb. The Hungarian Dances, by contrast, seem to me most fully imagined in their original form, at least theoretically; I can't say I can point to any performances that back me up. Still, it seems to me that Brahms was expressly trying to create an artificial -- or should I say artistic? -- miniature world conjured by these wonderful exotic tunes.

I don't doubt that Brahms himself understood what Dvořák was up to. The generous support he gave his young Bohemian colleague was no doubt a repayment, in his mind, of the patronage that had been so generously extended to him. And if you set the two composers' bodies of work side by side, it's clear how closely Dvořák absorbed Brahms's view of the musical world, working so many of the same forms in such similar ways.

I don't mean to say that there's anything unoriginal in Dvořák's working method, but rather that, like most creative artists, he learned by example, and he had the excellent taste to find and set his standards according to the best model there was. It's the good way that values are passed on. (Dvořák also seems to have absorbed Brahms's ferocious work habits and self-critical faculty.) My mental image is that at the intersection between Schubert's lyrical genius and Brahms's feeling for musical structure and discipline, you find Dvořák.

There's good reason for Americans to feel a special kinship with Dvořák: He felt the same for us, having taken his mission at the National Conservatory seriously. And while he semms to have experienced feelings of loneliness and separation from his own home, nevertheless his time here clearly provided a burst of creative stimulus, starting with the New World Symphony, written as we noted during his first academic year in New York.

The following summer, the summer of 1893, Dvořák and his family spent in the Czech-speaking community of Spillville, Iowa. And during that time he produced two more indelible masterpieces: the String Quartet in F major, Op. 96, known as the American, one of the best-loved of all chamber works, and its almost as wonderful fraternal twin, the String Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 97, also known as the American.

I don't know that we need to say anything more about the American Quartet before plunging in. We're hearing the first two movements, Allegro ma non troppo and Lento, played by the mystery quartet we heard playing Haydn Friday night and Smetana last night. Unlike in the Haydn movements we heard, in particular, all four players get a good workout here. The American is especially rich in viola opportunities. It may not come as a great surprise to learn that among Dvořák's musical accomplishments, he was a professional-caliber violist.

That's the first page of the first violin part of the American Quartet (you can click to enlarge),taking us up to about 2:36 of the movement -- note that the repeat in the bottom line at rehearsal no. 6 isn't observed.

NOTE: I'll add an update with the identity of the mystery quartet about 3pm PT (6pm ET). UPDATE: Update added below.

Just to complete the tale of Dvořák in America, between homesickness and growing discord with the conservatory management, he didn't make it through the 1894-95 academic year. But before he departed for Europe, he composed yet another towering masterpiece, the B minor Cello Concerto. But I don't think we hear any of his musical image of America in the Cello Concerto; his mind, it seems, was already back home.


And what a glorious run the Janáček had, though it was never accorded the prestige its remarkable musical standards warranted. These wonderful musicians were violinists Jiří Trávníček and Adolf Sýkora, violist Jiří Kratochvíl, and cellist Karel Krafka. Since the Brno-based Janáček never had the status domestically of Czechoslovakia's ranking Prague-based quartets, it generally had fewer opportunities at home for both studio recordings and radio broadcasts. Ironically, it seems to have been more appreciated abroad, and when it toured, it was hustled into recording studios by Deutsche Grammophon, Decca, and even the American Westminster company.

It happens that all of these companies have wound up under the umbrella of Universal Classics, and as a result the 2002 seven-CD DG Original Masters boxdevoted to the Janáček Quartet, billed as "The Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon," is, happily, the complete DGs, Deccas, and Westminsters. While copies can still be found at reasonable prices, they should be snapped up. Amazon also offers also an MP3 download version.

The Original Masters box is the source of all our samples. The Haydn and Dvořák quartets are from gorgeous 1963 Decca stereo originals made in Vienna (Haydn) and London (Dvořák), the Smetana from a 1956 DG mono. (The Haydn LP, from which we heard a movement each of Op. 3, No. 5, and Op. 33, No. 2, and which also included Op. 76, No. 2, may be the most beautiful quartet record I've ever heard.) On at least two occasions, the Janáček joined its more celebrated (but to my hearing nowhere near asx musically disciplined or structurally sophisticated) colleagues the Smetana Quartet to record Mendelssohn's splendid Octet for strings. The version recorded by Westminster in 1959 is included in the Original Masters box. It's heaven.

Beyond that, Supraphon recordings turn up sometimes. There's a set of the three Brahms string quartets, for example.


SYMPHONIES: I can't imagine being without the last three symphonies, Nos. 7-9, of which there are of course lots of first-rate recordings (and of course many more less-than-first-rate ones). It has become increasingly common to package these symphonies in a CD twofer with at least some other filler material, and two that seem to me esepcially recommendable both feature the Cleveland Orchestra. Yesterday I mentioned the Sony reissue of George Szell's classic Epic recordings, also including Dvořák's Carnival Overture and Smetana's Moldau and From My Life String Quartet as orchestrated by Szell and recorded in 1949. More recently, Christoph von Dohnanyi'srecordings of the three symphonies plus the wacky and wonderful Scherzo capriccioso, which we heard last week, are highly recommendable. With Witold Rowicki's excellent Philips traversal of the complete symphonies available in three attractively priced "twofer" sets, the middle volume, containing Nos. 4-6,is an obvious next step.

CONCERTOS: The great B minor Cello Concerto, Op. 104, one of Dvořák's most gripping and powerful works, is hard to spoil, while the more fragile Violin Concerto in A minor needs really sympathetic and understanding performers to realize its true stature. For the Cello Concerto, I still love Janos Starker'sMercury recording with the London Symphony under Antal Dorati. (There's also a hybrid SACD edition.) Last week we heard the finale from my much-loved Suk-Ancerl recordingof the Violin Concerto. An excellent bargain is the Sony Essential Classics CD containing beautiful Ormandy-conducted performances of both the Cello Concerto, played by Leonard Rose, and the Violin Concerto, played by Isaac Stern; lists new copiesas cheap as $2.83 plus shipping and used onesas cheap as $1.62.

SLAVONIC DANCES AND OTHER ORCHESTRAL WORKS: It's deleted now, of course, but as long as you can still find it as cheaply as it's still being offered on, the DG Trio set of Rafael Kubelikconducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony in the Slavonic Dances (the source of the performance of Op. 46, No. 2 we heard last week) and a whole bunch of other beautiful shorter orchestral works -- these are three really well-filled (in both senses) CDs -- is a no-brainer.

CHAMBER WORKS: There are excellent series of the string quartets and quintets by the appropriately Czech-flavored Vlach Quartet Prague (Naxos) and the more robust Chilingirian Quartet (Chandos). The eminently logical coupling of the American Quartet and American QuINtet is available from the Talich Quartet.There are outstanding recordings of the four piano trios by the Suk Trio (Supraphon)and the Borodin Trio (Chandos).

VOCAL WORKS: The most immediately appealing of Dvořák's operas, Rusalka, has been a happy vehicle for Renee Fleming, who has recorded it for Deccawith tenor Ben Heppner and Charles Mackerras conducting. (There's also a video recording from Paris with tenor Sergei Larin and James Conlon conducting.) The Supraphon-DG coproduction of Dvořák's Requiem with Karel Ancerl conducting the Czech Philharmoninc is available both from Supraphonand from DG.Of the lovely Stabat Mater there are lovely recordings conducted by Rafael Kubelik and Zdenek Macal,among others.

OR IN ONE FELL SWOOP: As I've mentioned, the 40-CD Brilliant Classics Dvořák anthology,which contains all of the above (yes, including a complete recording of Rusalka) plus much more, is surprisingly solid musically as well as a great buy. (You can easily find it for not much more than $80.)


The updated list is here.

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At 11:55 AM, Blogger Patty said...

One small note about the New World Symphony; the English horn part is actually written in the second oboe part. A good number of orchestras "split the book", and that's certainly what I prefer.

I see you provide a copy of the solo EH part. Believe it or not, I've never received a part like that in all my years of playing the work (I've been at this professionally since 1975)!

At 1:32 PM, Anonymous Balakirev said...

"...are arrangements of folk melodies, as Brahms's Hungarian Dances, the obvious model for them, mostly are."

Great piece, Ken. Just a brief note that Brahms' Hungarian Dances aren't based on Hungarian folk material, but mostly on songs written by various Hungarian gypsies for recruitment drives during the 19th century revolts. The originals have been recorded a few times by various modern Hungarian groups.

This isn't well known outside Hungary, but my wife and I have traveled there 7 times, and know a (very little) bit about the culture. We also have over 90 Hungarian folk CDs. We like the stuff. :)

At 2:11 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Thanks for making that point about the New World English horn part, Patty. I might have mentioned that while the English horn is singing its song not just the oboes but most of the winds are silent; mostly its companions are the muted or reduced string choir, making the accompanying clarinet and bassoon lines, when they occur, that much more striking. I know I planned to write about that amazing effect at the end of the reduction of the string complement to 16 and then 8 and then 3, one of the things we would have lost if we had had to put up with YouTube's 10-minute cutoff.

I'm guessing that playing that English horn solo must be a pretty remarkable experience!

Now can you explain our friend Phillip's point about the tuba part consisting entirely of those few bars -- in the Largo! -- where it indeed doubles the bass trombone. Again, I might have mentioned that this happens in that very wind chorale the I DID write about, and it's quite clear that he didn't mean bass trombone OR tuba, but wanted both, presumably to add the extra bass timbre to those amazing chords. But did he really expect orchestras to pay the tuba player to be on hand just for those few bars? Which now makes me wonder: DO orchestras do it?

With regard to the English horn part I used for illustration, I simply happened to find it online, and pouncded on it!

And B, thanks for filling in your fascinating information about the sources for the Brahms Hungarian Dance material. Hungarian gypsy political recruitment drives, eh? Who would have guessed? That sure isn't how those tunes come out sounding! I wonder if Brahms knew this. "Hungarian" and "gypsy" seem to have been pretty much interchangeable terms for him.

Well, you learn something every day.

Thanks for the great comments.



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