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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Dvorak - Best thing since sliced bread

By Norman Lebrecht / October 15, 2003

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Everybody knows a bit of Dvorak. The bit of Dvorak everybody knows is the Largo from his ninth symphony, ‘From the New World’, an irresistible theme that was written during the three years the composer spent in America in the mid-1890s, teaching in New York and summering among Czech emigrants in the Midwest. The tune, aching with vague indigenous yearnings, achieved folk status. Paul Robeson sang it as a spiritual to the words ‘Goin’ Home’. Mass-producers of wholemeal shrink-wrapped bread, just as mother made, used it in sepia-toned adverts. Its irresistible appeal made Dvorak’s E minor the most performed symphony, year on year, at most important concert halls.

Still in America, Dvorak wrote a concerto that surpasses every other work of its kind for cello and orchestra, an inexhaustible masterpiece in the key of B minor that never fails to reveal fresh colours. Like the New World symphony, it became an instant fixture in the concert calendar.

But that is more or less the limit of Dvorak’s adhesion. His seventh and eighth symphonies get an occasional airing, as do the serenade for strings and the robust violin concerto. But when did you last experience a performance of the towering Requiem that he wrote for the Birmingham Festival; or a cycle of the 14 string quartets; or any of the 13 operas except Rusalka, which divas adore for its Moon aria? Of Antonin Dvorak’s 138 numbered works, around 130 are scarcely performed outside his national borders.

Now there is no earthly reason why a man who wrote one hit, or even two, should have composed anything else worth hearing. I once had pressed upon me a rediscovered two-piano concerto by Max Bruch, whose first violin concerto perennially tops the Classic FM listeners’ poll, narrowly ahead of his plangent cello setting of the Aramaic prayer, Kol Nidrei. Sampling the two piano concerto, I soon found myself steaming with tedium at its barrel scraping flatulence. Listening to Bruch on a windy day is like being lost at sea with the Ancient Mariner.

Dvorak, it scarcely needs saying, was a composer of far superior class. Acknowledged by Brahms as his natural heir, elected to the upper house of the Austro-Hungarian parliament, he was a figure of substance across central Europe. Imbued with bucolic patriotism, his music aroused his fellow Czechs to self-determination. His was a frisky mind, full of invention. You will never hear a work of Dvorak’s that is, like so many of Bruch's, irredeemably dull. On the other hand, you will seldom find a Dvorak score that is relentlessly gripping, start to finish.

Consider the sixth symphony in D major, recently issued by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the Czech conductor Jiri Belohlavek. Its second section, an adagio, is charmingly Brahmsian while the ensuing scherzo sets two original themes against each other at breakneck speed, bristling with impossibilities. The outer movements, however, are mildly agreeable padding.

Where Brahms in his mastery would destroy any sheet of music that did not meet his stringent test of originality, Dvorak hung onto half-thoughts and tacked them on to his next work. Such makeshifts were not uncommon among late-romantics. None of the symphonic music of Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninov, Delius, Richard Strauss or Skryabin is without longueurs. Three of Mahler’s odd-numbered symphonies are marred by a weak movement, as are all the even-numbered symphonies of Prokofiev. Being a romantic composer meant never having to say sorry for lapsed inspiration. Dvorak was slacker than most. In 1879, aged 39, he wrote a piano concerto which aimed to do as Brahms had before him: to integrate instrument and orchestra into an organic whole. But where Brahms had devoted five years to polishing the epic D minor concerto, his first full orchestral work, Dvorak was feeding an impatient publisher and a fast-rising reputation. The concerto he delivered was semi-digested, and it sank like a plum dumpling. Even Czech pianists were deterred by its patchiness. Two of them, Vilem Kurz and Rudolf Firkusny, made substantial changes to the instrumental parts of the score, but they could not persuade the public, even in their own country, to overcome its persistent inconsistency.

A generation ago, in 1977, the Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter, who could grip an audience by placing scales, turned his formidable mind to the orphaned Dvorak concerto. Reverting to the composer's original score, he made a recording of the work in Munich with the elusive conductor Carlos Kleiber, who went to work (he said) only when his freezer was empty. Together, the legendary pair produced a compulsory purchase for record buffs.

But it failed to establish the work in public favour. Nor did the reasoned advocacy of the Hungarian pianist Andras Schiff, who played the concerto to tremendous acclaim at the 1998 BBC Proms. Now a new recording has arrived on Warner Classics in which Pierre-Laurent Aimard, a Parisian avant gardist, teams up with the conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, a descendant of Habsburg emperors. Theirs is a meeting of invention and tradition, modernity and ceremony. Both Brahms and Boulez flicker at the margins of their interpretation.

This intellectualist approach cannot redeem the concerto's flaccid outer movements, but at the heart of the work something essential is revealed. Shaped by the fastidious Harnoncourt, the central andante movement opens with a horn theme that whispers an affinity to the Largo from the New World symphony. Here, unmistakably, is Dvorak's greatest hit in embryo, conceived not in 1890s America but in the timeless flatlands of Moravia. It is incontrovertibly a blooming great tune and it lies buried in the bubble wrapping of a botched piano concerto. The solution seems simple: detach the central movement from its outer failings and the world will clamour to hear it again and again. But detachment is fraught with theological difficulty. It exposes a nervous schism at the heart of the classical confession, between fundamentalists who demand that all works must be performed intact and those of limited patience who want to cut to the good tunes. As a matter of personal faith, I would normally line up on the side of integrity. But in the case of Dvorak I'm starting to have my doubts. We'll be hearing an awful lot of his music next year in the centenary of his death, and I rather suspect that being served sliced on Classic FM might do Dvorak's reputation more good than being served whole on BBC Radio 3. Heresy, perhaps. But when a great composer has not achieved consistency, posterity has a duty to preserve him at his best.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001