New York Insider

The Dvorák you don’t know - but should

Albert ImperatoMon 24th October 2011
Autumn - and autumn listening - returns to New York's Hudson ValleyAutumn - and autumn listening - returns to New York's Hudson Valley

Time for a focus on the rest of the quartets and symphonies

Without seeming to think about it consciously, seasonal changes have a big impact on my listening habits, and autumn usually means spinning a lot more of Brahms’s chamber music – particularly the String Quintets and Sextets and just about anything by Sibelius.  This autumn, it’s the music of Dvorák that’s been keeping me busiest, and while some of his more popular works have brought pleasure, it’s been repertoire that I barely know that has caught my imagination and kept me thoroughly engaged.

By definition, a composer’s more famous works tend to eclipse his or her less well-known creations. What makes the case of Dvorák so interesting, though, is that there is such an abundance of high quality music that is living in the shadows of such warhorses as the ‘New World’ Symphony. People who know the ‘American’ Quartet might suspect, because it’s the only quartet that seems to be programmed regularly, that Dvorák only wrote a couple of string quartets. But in fact, he wrote a total of 14! The ‘American’, Op 96, is his 12th. While the two that followed are undisputed masterpieces (though barely known when compared to the ‘American’), there are several earlier ones that deserve to be heard, and even programmed, with some regularity, such as the Quartet No 5 in F Minor, which I couldn’t stop listening to this weekend (thankfully, I still have my set of complete Dvorák Quartets by the Prague String Quartet on DG, one of the all-time chamber music glories from Big Yellow). It’s a soulful, earthy work, full of hauntingly beautiful melodies, and, in comparison to its predecessors, it is relatively concise (the first few Dvorák Quartets last about 45 minutes apiece, while No 5 stretches to just over a half hour long).

The second movement of No 5 will cast a special spell for anyone who has come to love the composer’s ‘Romance’ for Violin and Orchestra: the thematic material of the of the former clearly provides most of the melodic material that comprises the ‘Romance’. It’s a truly gorgeous movement. The waltz movement that follows begins with a slightly frantic edge that quickly melts away like lifting fog, but then just as quickly returns. The final sprint of the last movement has that sparkling vitality that defines so much of the composer’s music. All in all, this wonderful quartet makes me eager to know all 14 of the Dvorák quartets. In all my years living in New York City there have been at least a few complete cycles of quartets by Bartók, Beethoven and Shostakovich. Is it too much to hope that some intrepid ensemble – and a correspondingly generous arts presenter – will do Dvorák justice and get him a complete string quartet cycle sometime soon here in the capital of the New World?
 
Turning to Dvorak’s nine Symphonies, New York has been lucky enough to hear several inspired performances of the last three, which are widely considered his masterpieces. In the past two seasons, for example, Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra, and, more recently, the New York Philharmonic under Alan Gilbert (Gilbert is a client of my company), have played the dark and elusive Seventh. While the first six Dvorák symphonies don’t have the admirable concision of his last three, they have no shortage of catchy melodies, quirky energy, Wagnerian richness and copious joy. Thanks to Spotify, eMusic and my own rather large record collection, I was able to listen repeatedly to recordings of Symphonies 1-6 over the past few weeks, and I wouldn’t want to part with any of my discoveries. A few of the highlights: 

- Myung-Whun Chung and the Vienna Philharmonic give rich, glowing performances of the three-movement Third Symphony and more expansive Sixth Symphony (both on DG), the latter possessing a fiery, slightly-demonic scherzo (or ‘Furiant’, the proper name for the Bohemian dance Dvorák sometimes employed) that is utterly thrilling. 

- István Kertész’s fresh and bracing romps through the spirited First and Second Symphonies with the London Symphony (from the classic Decca set of the complete nine) were full of unexpected delights, though both are admittedly a tad long-winded. Still, I want to hear both of them again.

- And Neeme Järvi’s urgent, exuberant takes on the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies (from a complete Chandos cycle) did not disappoint. The opening of the Fifth is as memorable as anything else Dvorák wrote, followed by a soulful andante suggesting Tchaikovsky, another winning scherzo, and a finale that threatens, in the final bars, to go up in flames. 

All of Dvorák’s quartets and symphonies will stay close to my stereo in the coming days and weeks, the perfect soundtrack for the cooler days and longer nights ahead.

Do you have recommendations for further Dvorák listening? Please share them by posting a comment below.

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