Thursday, September 18, 2003

[9/18/2011] From bucolic depths to blazing glory: Dvořák's Symphony No. 8 (continued)


The opening movement of Dvořák's Eighth Symphony is played by the Orquestra de Estado de México under Stefano Mazzoleni.

Certainly a different starting point, you'll have to agree, from that of the Tchaikovsky Fourth!


We're just going to listen our way through the Dvořák Eighth, with performances of each movement which show us at least some sort of the music's interpretive range. And we'll get right to it, right after --

As I thought about presenting the Dvořák Eighth, I hatched this vague idea of doing a sort of double-composite performance, one of which would involve native Czechoslav performances, though the definition would have to be stretched to include, for one, Rafael Kubelik conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. Anyway, in preparation for some relistening, I pulled a first batch of "A" candidates off the CD shelves -- a group that, as I recalled, included Christoph von Dohnányi (Decca), Herbert von Karajan (Decca), Kubelik (DG), Václav Neumann, George Szell, Václav Talich.

Here's where the funny part comes in. I set that stack of CD cases down . . . well, somewhere. For a while I assumed that of course it would turn up, but as Sunday began to loom, I went back to the hatchery for a Plan B. Still cravng an easy(ish) week here at the Sunday Classics plant, I decided to go back to the CD shelves -- absolutely no dipping into the LP reservoir for this one! -- and see what I could come up with.

ANTONIN DVOŘÁK: Symphony No. 8 in G, Op. 88

i. Allegro con brio

How hard, I wonder, did Dvořák have to work to make a stretch of music like the opening minute-plus of the Eighth Symphony sound, not just so riveting, but so effortless? As it begins we're gripped by what promises to be as hauntingly, nostalgically beautiful a piece as we've ever heard, and yet in not much more than a half-minute it has laid the groundwork for the entry of the flute with a solo that lifts us into a bright, innocently woodland vista, and within another half-minute, again without any audible change of gears, the orchestra has built from this into a full-orchestra burst of sunshine before handing off to the cellos for a brief voicing of yearning (sort of taking us back to the atmosphere of the opening), and then . . . .

I suppose it can all fit under the heading "bucolic," but my goodness, what diversity of utterance, and how neatly it all fits together and evolves and returns. It may be that there's a more beautiful or engaging opening movement in the symphonic literature, but I'd be hard put to say which it is.

I love the Barbirolli Dvořák Eighth (the same performance that veteran collectors will recall Vanguard issuing, coupled with the gloriously quirky Scherzo capriccioso, a piece that was featured in an October 2009 Sunday Classics post, in the period when it licensed Pye material for its budget Everyman label); the combination of ripe lyricism with a strain of proud extroversion could describe either this composer or this conductor. (He also recorded the Dvořák Seventh and Ninth Symphonies and some fillers with the Hallé.) The dreamier Gunzenhauser performance is sort of a leftover from that "native performers" scheme I was contemplating, though in this case it's only the orchestra that's Slovak; the conductor is American.

Hallé Orchestra, Sir John Barbirolli, cond. Pye/Disky, recorded June 28-29, 1957 (9:44)
Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra, Stephen Gunzenhauser, cond. Naxos, recorded February 1989 (10:23)

ii. Adagio

Working backwards, we know what Dvořák's next attempt at a symphonic slow movement would be: the Largo of the New World Symphony (which as it happens was featured in that same October 2009 Sunday Classics Dvořák post), than which it's hard to imagine a more wonderful creation. (Come to think of it, we've "done" the Largo of the New World, but not the whole symphony. Hmm, let's make a note of that.) As we hear here, though, the composer had set himself an almost impossibly high standard. And once again a rivetingly lyrical opening establishes a tone that seems to promise something more mobile and bracing than the expansive Adagio into which it soon metamorphoses, complete with a peroration worthy of a Bruckner Adagio. Throughout, again, the seeming simplicity of the way all the musical materials fit together belies how complex that "fitting together" process is.

Here we have two quite splendid performances. Wolfgang Sawallisch had a fine feel for Czech music, and Witold Rowicki, that excellent Polish conductor, recorded an awfully lovely Dvořák symphony cycle with the London Symphony.

Philadelphia Orchestra, Wolfgang Sawallisch, cond. EMI, recorded April 1989 (10:34)
London Symphony Orchestra, Witold Rowicki, cond. Philips, recorded January 1969 (11:08)

iii. Allegretto grazioso

That the symphony's scherzo takes the form of an Allegretto grazioso is unexpected but certainly in character for the prevailingly "bucolic" tone of the piece. While "graciousness" just isn't a characteristic we usually associate with scherzos, Dvořák manages to imbue it with strains of restlessness that have already been sounded earlier in the symphony, and also to let more of that warm sunshine beam forth in the Trio.

In our performances, Colin Davis pushes the grazioso element awfully far, with kind of interesting results.

Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Sir Neville Marriner, cond. Capriccio, recorded 1990 (5:47)
Concertgebouw Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis, cond. Philips, recorded November 1978 (6:34)

iv. Allegro ma non troppo

So how do you complete a symphony that has reached this point? I don't know whether Dvořák always knew where he was headed here, or it occurred to him at some point on the journey, but that electrifying trumpet fanfare that launches the finale is about the last thing most listeners were expecting. It's such a striking musical motif that many another composer would have ridden it a good part of the way home. Instead Dvořák gives us almost too little of it, fitting in neatly

The theme that erupts is so clearly related to musical materials we've heard in the first movement -- think of that flute solo and its subsequent expansions -- that I'm often left wondering whether we've actually heard it before. (Um, well, no, but sort of.)

I just assumed we would have one of Herbert von Karajan's recordings of this movement (I've got both the earlier Vienna Philharmonic version for Decca and the later Berlin Philharmonic one for EMI); I never heard him talk about the piece, but from his performances of it it seems pretty clear that he loved the Dvořák Eighth, maybe more even than the New World, and this finale brought out the best of his dramatic instincts.

London Symphony Orchestra, István Kertész, cond. Decca, recorded 1963 (9:01)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Paavo Järvi, cond. Centurion, recorded c1999 (8:35)


That wasn't nice, offering you just that 1½-minute tease of the first movement of the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony. Here's the entire 17½-minute movement, and for good measure I've thrown in the finale from this same terrific 1959 recording by Pierre Monteux and the Boston Symphony.

TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36:

i. Andante sostenuto; Moderato con anima
iv. Allegro con fuoco
Boston Symphony Orchestra, Pierre Monteux, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded Jan. 28, 1959


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