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Hyperion Records

LSO0001 - Dvorák: Symphony No 9
Recording details: September 1999
Barbican, London, United Kingdom
Produced by James Mallinson
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: December 1999
Total duration: 44 minutes 6 seconds

'Excellent' (The Mail on Sunday)

'Davis offers a story and a sense of conviction that place his performance in a wholly different league' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Highly successful … full marks!' (International Record Review)

'Unmissable … superb in all respects. Sound quality doesn't come any better than this whatever the price. Don't hesitate!' (Classic CD)

'Magnificent performances. These recordings are a joy from start to finish' (Daily Express)

Symphony No 9
Largo  [12'50]
Allegro con fuoco  [11'20]

Sir Colin Davis captures the haunting brilliance of Dvořák's masterpiece and draws a truly virtuosic display from the London Symphony Orchestra. This was LSO Live's first recording and immediately defined the label's unique sound.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Born into a peasant family, Dvořák developed a love of folk tunes at an early age. When he was 12, the boy left school and was apprenticed to become a butcher, at first working in his father’s shop and later in the town of Zlonice. Here Dvořák learned German and also refined his musical talents to such a level that his father agreed he should pursue a career as a musician. In 1857 he enrolled at the Prague Organ School, where he became inspired by the music dramas of Wagner: opera was to become a constant feature of Dvořák’s creative life.

His first job was as a viola player, although he supplemented his income by teaching. In the mid-1860s he began to compose a series of large-scale works, including his Symphony No 1 ‘The Bells of Zlonice’, and the Cello Concerto. Two operas, a second symphony, and many songs and chamber works followed before Dvořák decided to concentrate on composition. In 1873 he married one of his pupils, and in 1874 received a much-needed cash grant from the Austrian government. Johannes Brahms lobbied the publisher Simrock to accept Dvořák’s work, leading to the publication of his Moravian Duets and a commission for a set of Slavonic Dances.

The nationalist themes expressed in Dvořák’s music attracted considerable interest beyond Prague. In 1883 he was invited to London to conduct a concert of his works, and he returned to England often in the 1880s to oversee the premieres of several important commissions, including his Seventh Symphony and Requiem Mass. Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B minor received its world premiere in London in March 1896. His Ninth Symphony ‘From the New World’, a product of Dvořák’s American years (1892–95), confirmed his place among the finest of late 19th-century composers.

‘It seems to me that the American soil is having a beneficial effect on my mind and I would almost say that you will be able to hear something of this in my new symphony.’

Dvořák‘s letters to his friends back in Bohemia show his awareness that his stay in the USA was likely to have a noticeable effect on his creative work. In September 1892, he had been persuaded by an energetic American patroness of music, Mrs Jeannette Thurber, to take up a two-year contract as Director of the National Conservatory of Music which she had just founded in New York. ‘The Americans are expecting great things of me’, Dvořák reported soon after his arrival. ‘Apparently I am to show them the path to the promised land and the kingdom of a new, independent art; in short, to create a national music!’

The Americans welcomed Dvořák with open arms. Mr Steinway, for instance, immediately installed a splendid piano in his apartment in New York, free of charge. And, of course, he was plagued by journalists: ‘I hope I will succeed in implanting in the minds of conservatory students the most important concept of all – a faithfulness to one’s national culture and the importance of originality’, Dvořák told them diplomatically.

It was Mrs Thurber who claimed to have prompted her Director to compose a symphony that would capture his early impressions of the New World:

‘On the whole, Dvořák seemed to be happy in his new surroundings, although he suffered much from homesickness, being intensely patriotic … He used to be particularly homesick when he read the shipping news in The Herald. Thoughts of home often moved him to tears. On one of those days I suggested he write a symphony embodying his experiences and feelings in America.’

Dvořák began his sketches in December 1892 – his first Christmas away from home. One of the first ideas that came to him was the famous, nostalgic melody of the slow movement. In its original draft, this melody was marked ‘Andante’ and given first to clarinet, continuing on flute. Only later did Dvořák re-allocate it to cor anglais, and provide it with the regular dotted rhythm so characteristic of Negro melodies.

Dvořák was justly proud of the work, counting it among his ‘best and most original’. Certainly, the new symphony was less strictly Classical in structure than its predecessors, with the main theme of the first movement making dramatic reappearances in each of the remaining movements, rather in the manner of a Wagnerian leitmotif.

The first performance of the symphony at the Carnegie Hall, New York, in December 1893 – a public rehearsal with the official premiere the following day – was a major triumph. The critic of The Herald noted ‘a large audience of usually tranquil Americans enthusiastic to the point of frenzy. The work appealed to their sense of the aesthetically beautiful by its wealth of tender, pathetic, fiery melody; by its rich harmonic clothing, by its delicate, sonorous, gorgeous, ever-varying instrumentation.’

Each movement was greeted with a storm of applause, which Dvořák had to acknowledge from his box ‘as if I were a king!?’, as he reported back to Simrock. Anton Seidl, who conducted the Orchestra of the Philharmonic Society, was thrilled by the symphony, declaring it, somewhat exaggeratedly, to be ‘pure Indian music!’

However, Dvořák insisted that what he had written ‘is and remains’ Czech music. ‘It is’, he explained, ‘only the spirit of Negro and Indian music which I have endeavoured to reproduce in my symphony. I have simply written characteristic themes, while imbuing them with the features of Indian music’. Perhaps the critic of The Herald put it most succinctly: ‘Dr Dvořák can no more change his nationality than the leopard change his spots.’

Dvořák had added the title ‘From the New World’ almost as an afterthought, on the day he handed the score over for performance. It was, according to his Czech-American assistant, Josef Kovařík, ‘simply one of his innocent jokes and means nothing more than “Impressions and greetings from the New World” – as he himself explained more than once’. After the American critics had offered their various speculative interpretations, Dvořák smiled and said, ‘It seems I’ve rather confused them. At home they’ll know immediately what I meant!’ Among those who understood was the great Czech conductor VácIav Talich, who wrote of the symphony:

‘They say that it contains some Negro melodies. I believe it and I doubt it. Perhaps, Dvořák did employ the rhythm and melody of his surroundings, but doesn’t one feel when listening to this work how these foreign elements are remoulded by Dvořák’s Czechness? How there radiates from beneath the splendid outer form an unappeasable yearning for his native soil, a homesickness which at the close of the work culminates in an almost desperate cry?’

Patrick Lambert & Andrew Stewart © 1999

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