Dvorak: Symphony No 9 - Suk: Fairy Tale / De Billy, Vienna Radio Symphony
DVORÁK Symphony No. 9, “From the New World.” SUK Pohádka, op. 16 • Bertrand de Billy, cond; Vienna RSO • OEHMS 745 (72:09)
There seems to be a never-ending river of recordings of Antonin Dvorák’s Symphony “From the New World.” This particular stream flows down the Danube from Vienna to upset my notion that I’d heard all that might be done with a work deservedly known as this composer’s masterpiece. I have accumulated more than a few recordings of it: LPs by Arturo Toscanini with the NBC SO and Rafael Kubelík and the VP; CDs by Alexander Titov and St. Petersburg’s O “New Philharmony,” Pavel Urbanek and the PFO, and Marin Alsop and the BSO. These recordings span over a half-century, exposing the diligent listener to shifts in orchestral styles and gradual improvement in recording technique. The most recent, by the Vienna RSO under Bertrand de Billy, is either the culmination of these trends and developments, or merely the most recent (an Oblomovian paradox, depending on how you look at it). De Billy’s reading has its own fascinations.
For some time I had come to view Urbanek and the PFO’s traditional reading my fave, until Alsop’s version, also in the grand tradition, with the BSO took the top spot on my list. This reranking was mostly owing to improvements in recording sophistication. Now, along comes Billy—pronounced Bee-Yee, as in Puilly (or Pwee-Yee) Fuissé—who is willing to take some unorthodox risks in his interpretation, and I find myself weakening. Fickle is the heart of the record reviewer (Ovid).
Surfing quotables in my volume of The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music , I came upon a doozie. “Dvorák’s music is a particularly happy result of the major influences on his art: Wagner, Brahms, and folk music.” It encapsulates in one sentence a perhaps century-long conflict between the followers of Brahms and Wagner—an argument between Brahms’s pure music for its own sake and Wagner’s nationalistic music in service of the state. Or, in other terms, it highlights Brahms’s adherence to the classical forms vs. Wagner’s insistence upon totally new forms. Pardon this reduction to an oversimplified view, but to give both sides their due would take volumes. De Billy has a knack for bringing out the best in both points of view, to mine the series of big emotional moments and to honor adherence to form.
In the slow second movement’s second theme (4:40 in), there are passages that remind me of Wagner’s “Forest Murmurs,” and others of his original orchestral inventions. And then (8:00 in) the horns blare forth, not with the sustained force of Siegfried’s funeral music, but with enough force to prepossess one and call Wagner to mind. Shortly (at 9:30), there is a passage that reminds me of Brahms in its precise delicacy of the woodwinds. So, listening closely, one can hear Brahms and Wagner in this Dvorák Symphony. All through the work, de Billy uses subtle reversals of emphasis, bringing from background to foreground, or playing loudly what is usually played softly. Here, I must emphasize that de Billy does not choose to make such reversals each and every time the possibility arises. He is not slavishly doctrinaire about it; rather, he seems to decide on an ad hoc basis. All of the score’s notes are represented in performance, but their presentation is subtly changed, perhaps to be ironic and introduce a postmodern flair to the performance. He’s not telling.
Which brings to mind the following notion: certain music would retain its coherence even if parts were played in reverse. In Terry Riley’s In C , any musician may enter a bar and stay as long as he/she wishes by inventing variations on the notes in the score before moving on to the next bar as long as he/she remains in the key of C; and in certain of Bach’s pieces that were written for one instrument and then adapted ( by Bach ) to suit another, and owing to the qualities of one or the other (say, the slow organ instead of a quick harpsichord, with its faster action) can require more playing time to stretch out the score, and actually wind up much slower in performance though composed of the same notes. These are just two examples of music that is so formally strong the idiosyncrasies of performance can only add to its ambiance, hence interpretation, and give the music wider emotional scope to the listener and more opportunity for playfulness to the conductor.
By playing Dvorák’s very familiar “New World” Symphony with his personal vision of how some loud passages might be better if played softly, of how with the woodwinds “backing up” the strings, some passages might be bettered by emphasizing the winds and letting the strings serve as “back up.” Employing such stratagems, de Billy brings a new spotlight to the bas-relief of the score. By shining his spotlight at slightly different angles, he creates new relationships among the shadows. It is still the same Symphony, but with slightly different emphases in the presentation, de Billy has made it new. He has traded in a tired, if venerable, old warhorse for a high-spirited young one. To add to this, the recording engineering is very, very clear and crisp. On a high-resolution system, say a good headphones rig, you can hear every damned thing; and such a recording will bring out the best in nearly all stereo rigs.
I’m only familiar with one other recording of Josef Suk’s (Dvorák’s son-in-law) symphonic suite, Fairy Tale , and that one is played by Jirí Bêlohlávek and the Czech PO (1992) for Chandos. De Billy’s elapsed time for this piece is about 29:30, and Belohlávek’s is about 30:00. This makes the difference in elapsed times about 1.5 percent and pretty indistinguishable. De Billy’s version was recorded in 2008, and, owing to whatever technological advances, profits by each individual instrument’s better definition and the complete ensemble’s better balance. Suk was a very solid composer; though it was hard for him to step outside the shadow of his father-in-law, he does. Fairy Tale has considerable charm, and de Billy, aided by the ORF (Austrian National Radio) engineers, brings it to the fore more than his predecessor managed to do.
If you are the kind of record collector who is always on alert for the analogy to a very unique wine, like an Australian Rosé made from rich Shiraz grapes, you might like this album. It contains a richly flavored Dvorák Symphony “From the New World” at its best, and a zesty and charming Pohádka , both benefitting from very fine recording engineering. Highly recommended.
FANFARE: Ilya Oblomov
Release Date: July 28, 2009
Catalog Number: OC 745
Label: Oehms Classics
Number of Discs: 1
Period: Romantic, 20th Century
Composer: Antonín Dvořák, Kosef Suk
Conductor: Bertrand De Billy
Orchestra/Ensemble: Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra