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Joseph Swensen, the newly appointed Conductor Emeritus of the SCO, continues to delight fans in his dual role of solo violinist and conductor, in this, the seventh album in the SCO/Linn series.
This new compositional style can be said to have crystallised in 1875. During this extraordinary year he composed Moravian Duets, the well-known E major Serenade for strings, three major chamber works, his fifth symphony and the marvellously lyrical five-act grand opera Vanda. This remarkable productivity was largely prompted by him winning an Austrian state prize offered to struggling artists; the relative financial independence he achieved unleashed great compositional energy and allowed him to forge the musical style that would prove the foundation for a hugely successful career. The publication of the Moravian Duets and first set of Slavonic Dances by the German publisher Simrock toward the end of the 1870s transformed Dvořák’s reputation. The national accent cultivated in these works commended him to audiences across Europe and beyond. With considerable entrepreneurial skill Dvořák continued to exploit this national vein in many of his works composed in the late 1870s and through the 1880s.
Like Smetana, Dvořák did not build this pungent style on the quotation of folksong, but the rhythms of national dance certainly flow strongly through it. A work that benefits notably from this manner is the five-movement Czech Suite. This attractive and imaginatively scored work was composed in April 1879. In many ways it is a companion work to the more famous Serenades for strings (Op 22) and wind (Op 44) composed in 1875 and 1878 respectively. It shares with the two serenades a similar, slightly retrospective thread although, as its name implies, it includes as many as three nationally-inspired dances. The opening Preludium (subtitled ‘Pastorale’) also has a national feel with its pedal-note imitation of the Czech bagpipe. Dvořák does not, however, allow the device to pin the harmony down: gentle modulation and a subtle use of counterpoint keep this introductory movement delightfully fresh.
The rustic qualities of the Polka second movement emerge mainly in its second strain; the opening melody itself and the slightly brisker Trio are as delicate as anything Dvořák wrote at the time. The middle movement is a dignified Sousedská. This minuet-like piece begins with wind instruments—surely a conscious tribute to Dvořák’s eighteenth-century Czech predecessors—and supplies a brief development of the first theme in place of a Trio. An exquisitely understated Romance and an exhilarating, symphonically developed Furiant, full of exciting cross rhythms, conclude this delightful collection of movements.
There is a story, related by one of the composer’s pupils after his death, that Dvořák preferred his Violin Concerto to his great B minor Cello Concerto. While the Violin Concerto certainly justifies its role as a much-loved constituent of the repertoire, the judgement of history has favoured the Cello Concerto, which is now one of Dvořák’s two most popular orchestral works. His preference for the Violin Concerto may have had much to do with his notorious mistrust of the timbre of the cello ('thin on top and grumbling in the bass'); it may also reflect Dvořák’s own instrumental expertise since he was a good viola player and, when occasion demanded, an able violinist.
Dvořák wrote the Violin Concerto during the summer of 1879 as his reputation was fast acquiring its international dimension. Along with a large admiring public, Dvořák now found himself in the company of such luminaries as Brahms and his violinist friend, Joseph Joachim. An inscription on a sketch for the Violin Concerto, made in July 1879, indicates that Dvořák intended it for Joachim. At the end of the same month, Dvořák visited him in Berlin and presumably discussed his new concerto. A version of the concerto was completed later that summer, but this was far from being the end of the story. Joachim recommended numerous revisions which Dvořák, an almost compulsive reviser of his own works, undertook meticulously. While it is not possible to assess the full extent of these revisions since Dvořák destroyed the original material, it is clear from a letter that the changes were very far reaching, touching every aspect of the concerto’s musical fabric and organisation.
Even these alterations were not enough for Robert Keller, a much valued adviser of Dvořák’s publisher Simrock, who wanted the composer to write a new ending for the first movement rather than letting it lead straight into the slow movement. For Dvořák, who was usually receptive to Keller’s suggestions, the time for accommodation was past, and he refused to make this change not least, perhaps, because the passage linking first and second movements is one of the loveliest in the concerto. Simrock accepted his judgement and in 1883, four years after its completion, the Concerto was published. It is interesting to reflect that Joachim may have been in agreement with Keller since he never performed the work at a public concert, though he had run through it in a fairly full orchestral rehearsal in Berlin; the premiere was given in 1883 by Dvořák’s friend the violinist František Ondříček.
Even by Dvořák’s standards, the concerto is a richly lyrical work. The first movement begins boldly with a forceful unison statement from the orchestra answered by a bitter-sweet melody from the solo violin. Another exchange between solo and orchestra, and a cadential flourish leads into the main part of the movement in which the violin is rarely silent. A miniature cadenza initiates the exquisitely crafted link into the slow movement whose rapt melodic lines are interrupted by a stormy minor-key central episode—a direct anticipation of the slow movement of the Cello Concerto composed sixteen years later. The finale is close to the world of the Slavonic Dances and the Czech Suite. The main theme is imbued with the cross-rhythms of the Czech Furiant and provides the frame for a number of memorable episodes, including a reflective D minor interlude, before the exhilarating conclusion.
The Nocturne in B major is something of a ‘time-traveller’ in Dvořák’s output. Over a period of some fourteen years, it appeared in as many as five guises. It began life as the slow section of one of Dvořák’s most experimental works, the String Quartet in E minor (B19) from the late 1860s. This astonishing work is cast in a single movement lasting some forty minutes; the music that became the Nocturne provides a gentle interlude in a bold, often tumultuous, exploration of contemporary tonality. While Dvořák made no attempt to rescue the main part of the quartet through revision, he salvaged the slow section and used it as the first slow movement of the Double Bass String Quintet of 1875. Proving to be rather too much of a good thing, this extra slow movement was dropped and the Nocturne achieved independence in versions for piano for four hands, violin and piano, and for string orchestra possibly as late as 1883. In this version for strings, either solo or orchestral, the Nocturne is an attractive occasional piece, richly textured with affecting harmonies set over a sustained pedal bass note.
Dvořák’s best known piano music, in the shape of the Slavonic Dances and Legends, are duets, but he also wrote numerous collections of pieces for two hands. One of these was a group of Eight Waltzes composed late in 1879 and the first two weeks of 1880. Later that year, for a concert of his own promotion, Dvořák arranged two of the dances, the first and fourth, for string orchestra. The first, in A major, is amiable and relaxed, although a more plaintive mood is struck in the slightly brisker Trio.
Jan Smaczny © 2005