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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Dvorak, Symphony No. 9, From the New World, A Hero's Song, NDR Elbphilharmonie Orch., Krzysztof Urbanski

One of my happiest first experiences in classical music was buying and hearing Dvorak's Symphony No. 9, From the New World. I was still pretty new to the classical literature. I found a version that was affordable to me (I did not have much spending money of course as a kid) and it turned out to be faithful to the spirit of the music (in retrospect). I played it for my mom and she loved it, too. Like many of us in the US, we were flattered that a great composer took the time to visit and leave for us a masterpiece. Of course it no doubt energized the composers active in the US at the time and more so later, giving them the energy and courage to forge their own way.

The popularity of the work here is such that my friend Marc many years ago applied for a cashier's job at a local Sam Goody record store, and one of the few questions they asked him was "who composed the New World Symphony?" In those days the chains even sought to carry and sell the more fleetingly popular fare and to pronounce Dvorak's name properly was a sign as well that you knew enough about things to help customers.

Well the years have ticked by at an advanced rate and I do wonder if the 9th sells well anymore, if there is a populism that has brains and knowledge? Suffice to say that for me the 9th still rings beautifully in my ear. And when I hear the movement based on the spiritual "Going Home," I remember my mom and how she loved this symphony.

A recent move has stripped me bare of most of my vinyl and Dvorak's 9th was among those. I actually did not much care for the version I had ended up with, so when the Krzysztof Urbanski and the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra came up as something to review (Alpha-Classics 289), I eagerly jumped at it.

This is a singing version with everything going for it. The only aspect that I had to adjust to was the highly variable dynamic level, which perhaps came about as microphone placement was some distance from the orchestra? Not sure there, but in any event once you turn up the volume a bit all comes into focus.

The connection of this symphony genetically with Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony has hit me more forcefully as I listen to the NDR--and perhaps it is the fine definition of the strings in relation to the winds in the overall balance and Urbanski's painstaking attention to getting that phrasing-dynamics right that has brought the lineage connection to my ears that much more readily. In any case the balance and phrasing brings out the beauty of the totality and how countrified the music is in Dvorak's special way. The "Going Home" movement takes advantage of that as well as one might hope for. And no reading is complete of course without a ravishing treatment of the section. I can hear my mom responding again, wherever she may be up there.

Urbanski gives us an unhurried, detailed take on the entire symphony. It makes one feel that Dvorak did manage to capture then what made America great and it wasn't walls or tax cuts for the rich, crippling the "meals-on-wheels" program, or for that matter slavery. There was a human-human decency in the US at its best and a human-land relationship of respect and care when things were right, and I think Dvorak managed to put that into his music.

As a nice extra, the album includes the lesser known but worthy Dvorak tone poem "A Hero's Song." Urbanski and the NDR give us an impassioned reading of that, too.

Well now I would say that if you are looking for a very living version of the "New World Symphony," or one more if you have a few, this performance stands out as very fulfilling. It reminds me of what enthralled me about the work when I was 14!

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