DVORAK: Symphony No. 9, “From the New World”; Heroic Song – Bavarian Radio Sym. Orch./ Andris Nelsons – BR Klassik

DVORAK: Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95 “From the New World”; Heroic Song, Op. 111 – Bavarian Radio Sym. Orch./ Andris Nelsons – BR Klassik [Distr. by Naxos] (4/30/13) ****:

Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons (b. 1978), the current director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, has been a protégé of Mariss Jansons; but more to the point, Nelsons has been appointed to lead the Boston Symphony for the 2014/15 season. A former trumpeter, Nelsons worked with the NorthWest German Philharmonic in Herford, a venue long dear to the late Hermann Scherchen. While his work in Tchaikovsky and Richard Strauss has already gained note, this recording (1-3 December 2010; 25-27 April 2012) of music by Dvorak proves that he can raise a sumptuous sound from the crackerjack Bavarian Radio Orchestra, an ensemble that enjoyed a fruitful association with the great Czech leader, Rafael Kubelik.

Besides taking the first movement repeat, Nelsons provides the New World a grand canvas much in the manner of the epic readings by Kertesz, Bernstein, Mengelberg and Talich, optimistic in tone but aware of the dark melancholy that can intrude upon the American vision. In my experience, no conductor has so indulged the tragic elements in the score as consistently as Ferenc Fricsay; but Nelsons projects an intense attention to orchestral detail, especially in his woodwinds, and that refreshes this score significantly. For the Largo, besides the plaintive tone of his English horn, Nelsons achieves a chamber music sonority in the softer passages, of which the foremost literally calls for a string quartet. Nelsons moves the Scherzo: Molto vivace at a brisk pace, but he doesn’t sacrifice its incisive, folk-based energies and colors. The finale, Allegro con fuoco, has girth and vitality, a robust naturalness that several times caught my attention for a happy comparison, once more, to Vaclav Talich.

Of a different order comes the symphonic poem The Hero’s Song, Op. 111 (1898), which has no designated program but celebrates – according to the Lisztian model of sonata-allegro in compressed-symphony form- an ideal of energy and artistry, close in spirit to the Richard Strauss Ein Heldenleben. Gustav Mahler gave the premier in Vienna. Prior to Nelsons’ dazzling performance, my preferred rendition lay with Neeme Jarvi. Dvorak’s choice of key centers, like B-flat Minor for his moments of despondency, approximate much of Tchaikovsky for emotional dolor and personal strife. Suddenly, Dvorak finds hope in D-flat Major and final triumph or vindication in E Major, 2/4. Nelsons weaves a virtually seamless tapestry that makes musical sense out of an often knotty, unwieldy score that has remained the least appreciated of the composer’s five major tone-poemes of his late style. This performance is as revelatory as it is energized.  Recommended.

—Gary Lemco

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