DVOŘÁK: Symphony No. 7; Othello Ov.; The Wood Dove, Op. 110 – Malaysian Philharmonic Orch./ Claus Peter Flor – BIS

by | May 25, 2012 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

DVOŘÁK: Symphony No. 7 in D Minor, Op. 70; Othello Overture, Op. 93; The Wood Dove, Op. 110 – Malaysian Philharmonic Orch./ Claus Peter Flor – BIS multichannel SACD, SACD-1896 [Distr. by Qualiton], 72:42 ****1/2:
This disc presents an unusual but unusually apt program: three of Dvořák’s darkest, most tragic creations, in performances that go right to the heart of the drama inherent in each piece. There’s always room for one more excellent recording of Dvořák’s Seventh, maybe the composer’s greatest. It was written on commission from the Royal Philharmonic Society of London, wishing Dvořák to return the favor for having granted him honorary membership in 1884.
As Jean-Pascal Vaschon writes, “This suited Dvořák well, as the recent première of Brahms’s Third Symphony had stimulated the Czech composer’s desire to write a new symphony that would allow him to show that he was the equal of his Viennese friend.” Interestingly, while Brahms’s Third makes some grand and heroic gestures, it also has about it the burnished autumnal glow of the composer’s late works and could be considered Brahms’s Pastoral Symphony (though that honor is usually conferred on his Second). In contrast, Dvořák produced a work of stark and tragic grandeur. Vaschon notes that some scholars speculate Dvořák was reacting to the recent death of his mother or of his friend and colleague Bedřich Smetana, who died a gruesome death that same year as a result of syphilis. Perhaps. My feeling is that with two basically lighthearted symphonies bearing his name (his first four symphonies wouldn’t be published or widely known for years after his death), Dvořák wanted to show he was capable of a grander symphonic statement. This is especially true since his first symphony to be published, No. 6, is closely modeled on Brahms’s Second—so Dvořák’s new symphony would represent his chance to emerge from Brahms’s shadow for good and all. Dvořák succeeded brilliantly in this brooding sinewy masterwork.
I was interested to read in Jean-Pascal Vaschon’s notes to the recording that the powerful last movement represented for the composer “the Czech people’s stubborn resistance to their oppressors.” That would explain what Dvořák intended to convey in the coda, with its huge dissonant chord in the brass before the sudden turn from D minor to D major; the composer seems to be imagining the eventual triumph of his countrymen. There’s always something new to learn about a piece of music, even one that you think you know so well.
The Othello Overture is one of thee concert overtures Dvořák conceived as a trilogy that he originally intended calling “Nature, Life, and Love.” As it is, his intentions are reflected in the three pieces, the first two being In Nature’s Realm and the highly popular Carnival Overture. I’ve always thought that Othello was very much the weakest of the three, not fully worthy of Dvořák, but Claus Peter Flor’s powerfully dramatic reading almost convinces me otherwise. Certainly, I can’t recall an interpretation, besides István Kertész’s classic reading, that’s more moving than this one.
I’ve read some commentaries that allege Dvořák was too gentle natured and optimistic, or some such appraisal, to match the violence and terror evoked by Karl Erben’s adult fairy tales, four of which the composer turned into symphonic poems between 1896 and 97. I admit that The Golden Spinning Wheel hardly hints at the grim and bloody-minded details of the original poem (though it’s a lovely piece of music just the same), but I think Dvořák was very successful in the other three, of which Houloubek, or The Wood Dove, is one. (The remaining two are the very powerful Noonday Witch, maybe my favorite, and The Water Sprite.)
The Wood Dove paints the picture of a beautiful woman who poisons her husband, cries crocodile tears at his funeral (wonderfully portrayed by cascading violin figures), is wooed by a local peasant, marries in a festive interlude redolent of Czech folkdance, and then is haunted by the calling of the wood dove over her husband’s grave. At last, she goes mad and drowns herself in the river—a powerful moment in the score that’s followed by a quiet postlude harking back to the similarly quiet opening. Jean-Pascal Vaschon wonders, “is it the voice of the dove, now satisfied with the young widow’s fate, or that of the composer granting absolution?” Knowing Dvořák’s generous nature, I vote for the latter.
The overture and symphonic poem receive performances that I doubt can be bettered. These are beautiful readings, beautifully played by an orchestra that has come into its own in the last several years, as evidenced by BIS’s well-requited faith in the ensemble. Their recordings of Rimsky, Suk, and Smetana have won almost universal praise. As to the symphony, this, too, is a powerfully taut and purposeful reading marred oh-so-slightly by a couple unnecessary agogic distortions here and there in the first and last movements.
Comparing this reading to Marin Alsop’s recent recording with the Baltimore Symphony on Naxos, I’m fascinated to note that Alsop and her orchestra turn in not the expected brash American-style reading but a more measured, gentler one that seems attuned to Old World musical traditions. It’s the German Flor and his Asian orchestra who turn in a fiery performance much closer in character to my favorite recording: Christoph von Dohnanyi and the Cleveland Orchestra on Decca (a great bargain, by the way). But the rather close, slightly airless sound Decca produced in Cleveland can’t match the beautiful expansiveness of BIS’s recording, one of the best they’ve turned out in Malaysia. This really is a very special release, and I recommend it heartily!
—Lee Passarella

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