Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sunday Classics: Our composer is Antonin Dvořák


MONDAY UPDATE: Apologies to contest-whiz Mimi, whose name I managed to misremember so successfully that it didn't occur to me to double-check.

This statue of Dvořák stands in Manhattan's Stuyvesant Square Park, near the now-demolished house on East 17th Street where he composed the New World Symphony while he was director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York (1892-95).

by Ken

Yes, the music in our Friday and Saturday night preview installments all came from the pen of Dvořák (1841-1904), though only one of the two arrangements did.

Kudos to our friend Mimi, who got from Friday's mystery waltz "a Smetana or Dvorak feeling" (as it turns out, Mimi, not "weird" at all -- good ear!) and guessed Dvořák, having already reasoned sensibly that the piano version is the original: "I would think that whoever the composer is would write a larger work for the strings, but short piano pieces are always in abundance for a composer who used the piano." (For extra credit, Mimi also correctly identified Fritz Kreisler as the arranger of the Dvořák "Humoresque" from last night.)

In fact, Dvořák did write all sorts of odd little chamber pieces, but good job, Mimi! As reader Woid noted, this waltz indeed originated as a piano solo, No. 4 of the Op. 54 set of eight. Mimi also got the key, well, half-right on the second try. The thing is, the piano and string quartet versions aren't quite in the same key. The piano original is in D-flat major (making it a heavily black-key composition), but when Dvořák arranged this and another of the Op. 54 waltzes for string quartet (under the same opus number), he jacked this one up a semitone to the much string-friendlier key of D major. The tempo marking, though, is Allegro vivace either way. Note how differently our pianist and string quartet interpreted that. Which brings us to --

Our piano performance is by Kai Adomait, from Brilliant Classics'surprisingly interesting 40-CD "Dvořák: The Masterworks" anthology, which among other things includes the Stamitz Quartet's Bayer-label traversal of the complete music for string quartet (not to mention a complete performance of the opera Rusalka).

The Stamitz series is not the source of our string quartet performance, which is, as Woid guessed, by the Vlach Quartet Prague, from Vol. 5of its lovely, flavorful Naxos Dvořák series. (The Vlach Quartet Prague, by the way, is a reincarnation of one of the great Czech quartets, the Vlach Quartet, led by violinist Josef Vlach -- and Woid filled in some fairly astonishing background about that quartet. The Vlach Quartet Prague's name was not just officially sanctioned but was bestowed with paternal pride on the young ensemble: First violinist Jana Vlachová is Josef V's daughter.)

I might add that the principal work on this Vlach Quartet Prague CD is one of Dvořák's most astonishingly original and beautiful creations, actually put together for publication after the composer's death by his son-in-law, the composer Josef Suk (the grandfather of the great violinist Josef Suk), the utterly unexpected Cypresses, a set of ten miniatures that are in fact string quartet arrangements of early Dvořák songs.

Since the first few times I heard this deceptively simple little waltz, it has burrowed into my consciousness, which is why I wanted to put it out there, as a specimen of Dvořák's signature melodic and rhythmic genius and his distinctive way of taking control of the listener's imagination and messing with the subconscious. It's also a sample of the treasures you often find when you venture into the byways of his sizable output, in particular the lesser-known chamber music, often for decidedly curious instrumental combinations. There's a splendid Terzetto for two violins and viola, for example, and a Gavotte for three violins, and a set of five Bagatelles for two violins, cello, and harmonium.


The orchestral work was of course one of Dvořák's inexhaustibly stimulating and soul-satisfying Slavonic Dances, No. 2 in E minor from the first set of eight, Op. 46, published with a generous push from Brahms, whose Hungarian Dances were the obvious model (though the younger composer set the bar much higher than the master; we'll be talking about this in the main piece). The success of the Op. 46 set created demand for more, and the composer duly produced a second set of eight, Op. 72. By happy chance, the 16 Slavonic Dances usually fit nicely on a single CD.

And if anyone didn't recognize Dvořák's little "Humoresque," hello! This too was originally a solo-piano work, No. 7 of the Op. 101 set of eight Humoresques. The violin-and-piano arrangement is by the great violinist Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962), and sounds more like Kreisler than Dvořák (especially as played by Kreisler in his many recordings of it). For a lot of people, once they discover that it's by Dvořák, this may be the only work of his they know, or the only one they think they know.


Ah yes, the connection between last night's selections. The Slavonic Dance was conducted by the distinguished Czech-born conductor Rafael Kubelik (1914-1996, from his last complete traversal of the Slavonic Dances, with the Bavarian Radio Symphony for DG), while the "Humoresque" was played by his father, the world-famous violin virtuoso and heartthrob Jan Kubelik (1880-1940).

It happens that the Jan Kubelik clip nearly didn't make it to last night's post (only to make it twice in the original posting!). The, er, conceptualization of this name-the-composer contest dates back to January, only to be shelved -- for what I thought at the time would be a matter of a week, while I tried to figure out how to rig up my own audio files. Well, heck, we're still in the same calendar year, no?

The technical kinks are far from worked out, but when it came time to reassemble the project, I found to my horror that among the MP3 files I'd ripped way back when, the Jan Kubelik's "Humoresque" was nowhere to be found. And neither was my copy of the two-CD Biddulph set devoted to the violinist from which it had been taken, since most of the CDs I'd used for the seemingly doomed project had never been reshelved. (This is why I've discreetly avoided giving a date for the recording. I'm vaguely recalling something like 1912, but it sounds earlier. Maybe someone can help?)

In panic mode, where I was thereby thrust, I find that the looniest ideas often seem like brainstorms. The loony idea I came up with was to substitute Kreisler's own first recording of the "Humoresque," made in New York in 1910. (Goodness only knows how many he made. The 1995 RCA compilation of all his Victor recordings included four, and again, that's just his Victor recordings.) The connection between the two clips would have gone something like this: The Slavonic Dance is conducted by Rafael Kubelik, and the "Humoresque" is played by Fritz Kreisler, whose arrangement was also recorded by Rafael's father. Well, it would have had to do if I hadn't found a copy of the missing MP3 file. I'm reluctant to say where, as it could get me into trouble.

Anyway, I've still got the Kreisler performance ready to roll, so why don't we listen to it?


I'm trying to remember if I've encountered any indication that Kreisler played the Dvořák Violin Concerto. I'm certainly not aware of his recording any of it, which is too bad; I'll be he would have played it beautifully.

Now that the subject of the subject of the Dvořák Violin Concerto has fortuitously arisen, I might mention that one of the pieces I really, really wanted to include in the upcoming main Dvořák piece was the concluding rondo of, yes, the Violin Concerto. The last time I went looking on YouTube, I was horrified by the performances I found. In the best recording I know, by the violinist (and Dvořák great-grandson) Josef Suk, with the Czech Philharmonic under Karel Ancerl, it's pure spun-silver magic. While I see it's been issued on CD, I don't have that. So let's hear Nathan Milstein with the Pittsburgh Symphony conducted by William Steinberg, in 1957:


Sorry about that, but I've dithered so about getting the ground cleared that I'm afraid we're going to have to put the actual Dvořák post off till next week. On the plus side, the music is all in place, and it's a good part of the way written. Oh wait, that's only on the plus side for me. What's in it for you?

Well, I can tell you we've got some really glorious music set to go, and since you had to endure my quiz this week, for next week let me answer the question before it's asked. We'll be leading off with a video clip of Lucia Popp singing the daylights out of the "Song to the Moon" from Rusalka. Then we've got Otto Klemperer conducting the Largo from the New World Symphony -- audio only, so that we get to hear the whole thing; on YouTube, of course, they call time on you at about the 10-minute mark. And we've also got not one but two movements, the first two, of the American String Quartet, played by . . .

No, I think I'll keep one surprise. Let me just say that this may be . . . well, all-around these fellows may be greatest string quartet I've heard. If you want to guess who (if, in other words, you want to try to identify a performance you haven't heard yet), heck, it's a free country.

Now, as to the pronunciation of Dvořák's name: Because the Czech "ř" comes out as "rzh," that gives us something like "DVOR-zhock."


Now I guess I owe you some music. Here I've been trying to be good, knowing the Dvořák goodies we have in store. But now that they're all postponed to next week, we may have a music gap.

I would have loved to slip in a movement of the B minor Cello Concerto. (But which?) Still, we've just had the finale of the Violin Concerto. For a time in the conceptual stage, I was sure we would have the trumpets-blazing finale of the Eighth Symphony, maybe in one of Herbert von Karajan's terrific recordings -- he clearly had an affinity for the piece. Or maybe some bits of the glorious Dumky Piano Trio? (But again, which bits?) Certainly worthy. However, we've got a symphony movement and a string quartet movement already on the program.

So how about a piece that hardly anybody would think to include on a Dvořák short list? I'm thinking of the wild and wacky Scherzo capriccioso. Actually, it seems to have snuck up on the public. It used to be that it got the occasional performance from a devotee or a thrill-seeker. Now everybody seems to be playing it. And deservedly so. It has the frequent Dvořákian characteristic of leaving you hardly any idea where it may be going next, while always taking you someplace so wonderful, you wouldn't want to be anyplace else.

Listen, for example, to the weirdly wonderful orchestral celebration that breaks out at the opening. Would you ever guess that it's leading us to the sweetly sighing tune that arrives at 1:12? (It's a tune that should be familiar to all aficionados of cartoons and silent-movie music.) And again, the Scherzo capriccioso has that singularly Dvořákian characteristic of burrowing into your subconscious. At a certain point, after a certain number of hearings, you discover that it's become woven into the fabric of who you are.

It's also a piece that would be truncated by YouTube's ten-minute limit, even if there were a performance there worth regretting. Here's a fine one by Mariss Jansons and the Oslo Philharmonic:


Once I knew it was a Karel Ancerl CD I was looking for, and not a Josef Suk one, a single visit to my local used-CD emporium turned up a copy for $4.99! (I wish I could say that's all I bought. The problem is that when I struggle so hard to stay away, by the time I pop in, there are just too many too-cheap-at-the-price treasures.)

So here is the sweetest-toned and most elegant of violinists playing the rondo finale of the Dvořák Violin Concerto, with Maestro Ancerl conducting the Czech Philharmonic.

By the way, my statement about the violinist Suk's lineage, although not incorrect, may have been confusing. He is indeed the grandson of the composer Josef Suk (1874-1935) and also the great-grandson of the great Dvořák, but the one is not, strictly speaking, the cause of the other. As I also mentioned, the elder Josef Suk was the composer's son-in-law, marrying his oldest daughter, Otilie Dvořáková (1878–1905), in 1898. That's what makes their grandson the great composer's great-grandson.

Alas, when "young" Josef was born (since that was in 1929, "young" Josef is perhaps a bit of a stretch, but everything's relative, especially where actual relatives are concerned), Grandma Otilie had been dead for almost a quarter-century. However, given that the future violin virtuoso was all of five when Grandpa Josef died, I like to think he has some memories of him.


Here is the updated list.

Labels: ,


At 11:29 AM, Blogger Jimmy the Saint said...

Love the music stuff. Especially the focus on lesser known(compared to Mozart and Beethoven) composers. Also, have you checked your email lately? ;-)

At 5:49 PM, Blogger Philip Munger said...

Last May I played in Dvorak's New World Symphony for the first time in about 35 years. This time I played tuba instead of 1st or 2nd trombone. He must have been angry with a tuba player when he wrote the NWS. The instrument has 14 notes. There are seven at the beginning of the slow movement, seven at the end. They're all doubled by the bass trombone. Makes no sense.

At 7:10 PM, Anonymous Balakirev said...

I've loved the Scherzo capriccioso since first hearing it in my teens, in a performance with Barbirolli/Halle. Ken, look for a similar type of piece by Dvorak's son-in-law Suk, if you can find it, called Fantastic Scherzo. He works a different kind of eerie, nostalgic magic, but the overall effect is similar.

At 8:03 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Thanks for that interesting note about the NWS tuba part, Phillip! No, that sure doesn't make a lot of sense, especially for the poor tuba player.

And thanks for the tip, B. I don't know the Suk "Fantastic Scherzo" but will definitely try to dig it out.

And Jimmy, that's a good observation about looking at the less-celebrated composers. It's hard to avoid the greatest masters, who really are the greatest masters, but there are lots of other genuinely great composers, and we'll continue investigating them, not to mention composers who probably don't qualify as "great" but nevertheless wrote wonderful music without which we would be significantly poorer. (And yes, I did finally get caught up on the e-mail!)

At the moment, listening to a performance of the celebrated Overture has got me thinking about Rossini's last opera, William Tell. We all know the Overture, of course, or at any rate the thrilling conclusion, but vast and difficult as the opera is, I think everyone needs to make the acquaintance of Rossini's Tell himself.

I like to think of him as the angriest man in opera, and his anger is of a kind that ought to resonate. While all around him his Swiss countrymen live blissfully content lives of physical comfort, little concerned about the tyranny of the Austrian occupiers, to Tell it's simply intolerable, eating away at him and filling him with rage that only his incredibly strong will (mostly) keeps in check.

And of course who doesn't want to hear the Overture again? There aren't many happier or more thrilling ways to spend 11-12 minutes.


At 7:59 PM, Blogger Philip Munger said...

Thanks, KekinNY.

Between you and Tristero at Digby, I wish I had more time to blog about what I love most. Your posts on music here are a treasure.

At 6:55 AM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Thanks, Phillip! It's nice to have you visiting.

I've still got to get out my New World score and look at that tuba part!



Post a Comment

<< Home