Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Review of Dvorák: Symphony No. 9 “From The New World”

Review by David A. Hollingsworth for Dvorák: Symphony No. 9 “From The New World”
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Grammy Award-winner Paavo Järvi has built a remarkable conducting reputation. Born in Tallinn, Estonia, he studied percussion and conducting at the Tallinn School of Music. In 1980 he moved to the US, where he continued his studies at the Curtis Institute of Music and at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute with Leonard Bernstein. He became Music Director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in September 2001 and has recently extended his contract with the orchestra until 2011/12. Through the dignified voice of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Järvi’s rendition of Dvo¡rák’s New World Symphony is both solid and satisfying.

Okay, let me start off with the first statement of fact. There is the exposition repeat in the first movement (which is a common practice yes, but there are conductors who still take a different, more shortened alternative). Now onto the second statement of fact. This is a compilation album of seemingly the 1993 performance in commemoration of the one-hundredth anniversary of a great symphony (plus the Carnival Overture and the Scherzo Capriccioso that were recorded later). Inevitably, perhaps, the playing of the symphony here by Paavo Jarvi and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is white-heat stuff. Yet the utterance is not only committed, it is genuine too. Paavo Jarvi’s take of the work is ravishing, but like Kyrill Kondrashin (with the Vienna Philharmonic), he leaves no room for the showmanship in approach that would’ve risk superficiality at the expense of substance (like in the largo movement that I’ll get to soon). In the first movement, the sense of adventure and journey is ever so profound and American in feel (you sense something is about to happen). The adagio beginning is nicely restrained and soulful. But turn to allegro molto and all hell breaks loose: the timpanist is splendid, the winds dauntless, and the strings fierce. The warmth, though, is present and in abundance (particularly in the third subject at 4:27 and again at 11:28 where Jarvi molded the orchestra for something penetrating yet with that arresting subtlety that somewhat shows Dvorak’s sense of nostalgia). The only conductor closest to that is again Kondrashin, where the warmth in the playing is set against the recording sound that is perfectly effervescent. The coda here is superlative and thrilling.

Turn to the largo movement and the soul-searching is ever so reflective. But please don’t be put-off by the 15:23 playing time of the movement, for Jarvi’s approach is very special indeed. It’s `going home’ all right, but with that arresting sense of longing that’s nicely restrained, as if a person is going home for the first time in years and reflectively looking back of all that he (or she) went through. That sense of uneasiness is apparent here (and the cor anglais is effectively heartrending). The climax, at 10:46, is proud and dignified, but soon thereafter, that sense of longing is again insightful. Jarvi is patient in this movement, but not dragging and over-indulgent: indeed an intuitive artist at the podium who knows what he wants and how to get from Point A to Point B.

The final two movements go off with the bang. Jarvi’s take of the scherzo is quite gallant and with that sense of inevitability that makes the first movement such an experience (the brass and percussion departments are particularly excellent and gripping here). And the tempi are well-judged especially in the poco sostenuto section, where there’s dignity yes, but also the gracefulness that nicely offset the adventurousness of the outer sections. As far as the finale (allegro con fuoco) is concerned, the orchestra is again excellent and the overall sense of structure is ideal. Only in the coda do I feel that the playing is a bit headlong for my taste. But with all that said, the recording of the symphony has to be counted as one of the best in (literally) the crowd of recordings currently available.

As far as the fillers are concerned, I cannot think more highly of the team’s performances of both the Carnival Overture and Scherzo Capriccioso. To say that the playing of the Overture is resplendent is an understatement, for in terms of raw excitement and pinpoint virtuosity (again the percussionists are excellent) only Kubelik and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra come to mind in comparison. And while Jarvi takes about a minute longer overall, the effects in the playing remain brilliant while sweet and mellow in the middle of the piece. But what I so admire in Jarvi is his penchant for details (like in his Stenhammar and Sibelius recordings). This is especially true in the Scherzo Capriccioso (1883), where, thanks to this great maestro, I’ve learnt more of what I’ve missed about it in previous hearings: namely the forward-lookingness in places (at 6:33 for instance) where his pupil Novak must have stored in his subconscious as he composed music somewhat in a modernist vein. And the brass here in particular brings this attribute to the fore decisively.

This album, with its admirable presentation and incandescent recordings, should not at all be missed. The musicality in the performances is simply too great and too genuine to be overlooked and unnoticed.


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