Antonin Dvorákheaded across the Atlantic in 1892 to become director of the National Conservatory of Music of America, New York. Since the Czech composer had successfully defined a distinctive national spirit in the music of his homeland, the conservatory’s founder, Mrs Jeannette Thurber, was hoping that he would come to the US and create one for them too.
Dvorák found one, though possibly not in the location Mrs Thurber had anticipated: “In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music,” he stated. It is the contours of their spirituals that linger in his American works, including the String Quartet in F major, and, of course, the Symphony No.9, ‘From the New World’. The keen-eared will hear, in the first movement’s second theme, an echo of ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’.
But there’s more to the symphony than that (as Michael Beckerman revealed in his excellent bookNew Worlds of Dvorák). It seems that Dvorák in America was transfixed by Henry W Longfellow’s poemThe Song of Hiawathaand began to draft material for an opera based on it. The story of a native American chief and his tribe, the poem, with its images of the “noble savage” so beloved in the romantic era, was vastly popular (though has since sunk from view).
The libretto, though, had to be approved by a committee from the conservatory – and they did not approve it. The opera was shelved. No composer likes to let good music go to waste and Dvorák duly recycled some of his drafts into the Symphony No.9. Therefore those who fondly recall the Hovis advert backed by the symphony’s slow movement might like to reflect that they are listening not to sliced bread, but to the death of Minnehaha.
Marin Alsop and her Baltimore Symphony Orchestra set about this performance with enormous energy and a focused, driven sense of purpose. There’s not a shred of sentimentality about it; instead the playing in these live performances from Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall is rugged, sinewy and urgent. Within this resonant acoustic the brass seems to benefit and at times they almost steal the show, but there is a persuasive solo from the cor anglais in the slow movement and concentrated, punchy sound from the strings. Alsop keeps the orchestra on a tight rein and never lets the tension drop; the result is a serious performance with plenty of visceral thrills. Very occasionally one might wish for a more relaxed Czech-style lilt in the lyrical moments, but the concept as a whole has much integrity thanks to its strength of character.
The Symphonic Variations on an Original Theme gains a welcome outing as companion work, a fine orchestral showpiece composed in 1877. It puts a quirky, modally-coloured little theme through a series of character transformations, ingeniously orchestrated and rich with the shimmer of highlighting triangle and high woodwind. Again the Baltimore SO and Alsop rise to the challenge in a springy performance that gives the music all the verve that it needs. The FLAC Stereo sound quality, while showing up the acoustics a little bit, helps to ensure that beautifully defined colour and detail comes through.
Jessica Duchen’s music journalism has appeared in The Independent, The Guardian and The Sunday Times. She is the author of a number of novels (most recently Ghost Variations, published in 2016), biographies and plays. Current projects include an opera libretto for composer Roxanna Panufnik (for Garsington Opera 2017). Her popular blog JDCMB has run since 2004.
Performance: four stars
Sound: four stars
Dvorák: Symphonic Variations; Symphony No.9, ‘From the New World’