Dvorak: Symphony No 7, Otello Overture, Wood Dove / Flor, Malaysian Philharmonic

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You might subtitle this disc “The Dark Dvorák” since it consists of three of his most turbulent (but also greatest) works. First there’s Othello: guy kills girl. Next, The Wood Dove: girl kills guy, then offs herself. Finally, there’s the tragic Seventh Symphony: everyone kills everyone, but metaphorically, of course. I actually love the concept. Usually, Dvorák gets treated as a sort of “Brahms lite”, a cute Bohemian purveyor of alluring, pastoral tunes full of charm and ethnic high spirits. Even the frequent use of minor keys can be explained by his frequent recourse to Czech folksongs, dances, and other equally adorable (and non-threatening) accoutrements of his native land.

Claus Peter Flor is obviously having none of it. Not only has he chosen three of Dvorák’s most impassioned works, he plays them so as to make damn sure that we feel the same way about them that he does. First the really good news: both Othello and The Wood Dove are stunning. Indeed, this is hands down the most exciting performance of the former yet committed to disc, bar none. Hearing this performance, you will be stunned that this thrilling, dramatic work remains one of the most neglected of all Dvorák’s late masterpieces. The Wood Dove is every bit as brilliant: gaunt and grim in the funeral march that brackets the lilting wedding scene, and crushing in the subsequent suicide music. One curiosity: Flor prefers the kazoo-like sound of muted trumpets to Dvorák’s requested instruments offstage just before the party sequence—an odd choice.

The performance of the Seventh Symphony will be more controversial. It has magnificent moments—indeed whole movements. The Andante receives as lovingly shaped a reading as any on disc, but there are moments when Flor’s eagerness to underline the music’s darkness leads him dangerously close to mannerism. I’m thinking of the first movement’s opening (and coda), treated more as a slow introduction than as the plunge into the main tempo that Dvorák wrote. As a postlude, the tempo makes more sense. The scherzo, too, is swift and urgent, but somehow just slightly lacking in rhythmic bite, while the finale, played for all that it’s worth, does not benefit from Flor’s decision near the start to hold back the tempo at the ends of phrases to underscore just how grim the music is supposed to be.

Once the movement gets going, though, Flor builds in excitement right through to an incredibly powerful coda. He adds horns to the final chorale, as so many performances do, but Neumann’s trumpets avoid that slightly vulgar portamento that always seems to accompany the horn option, and their brighter tone is arguably more apt. And why, finally, does Flor have the timpani drop out on the final chord? That’s just weird. Is he afraid that a more emphatic ending might persuade us that the work isn’t as despairing as he believes it to be?

It may be that the engineering exacerbates some of these impressions. Don’t get me wrong: the basic sound is very good in and of itself, but in this music, especially, we need to hear more from the woodwinds, and a sharper rhythmic bite from the brass and timpani. These are subtle points, but listeners familiar with this music will notice immediately the difference between these and other, more brightly engineered versions. And make no mistake: a brighter mean sonority can be captured without compromising the music’s expressive intensity, its “dark” energy.

So to summarize: the commitment and vision on evidence here are extremely impressive. Even the symphony, for all my various reservations, receives a performance like no other, magnificent in parts, impressive overall, and one that collectors will surely want to hear. Flor has the orchestra playing extremely well, and unlike so many time-beaters taking up podium space these days he has both good ideas and the talent to execute them. He takes risks. Whether or not they all pay off will be a matter of opinion, but there’s no question that when they do the result is the most gripping Dvorák to come along in many years.

-- David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: BIS-SACD-1896

  • UPC: 7318599918969

  • Label: BIS

  • Composer: Antonín Dvořák

  • Conductor: Claus Peter Flor

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra