Dvorak - Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70 - London Symphony Orchestra / Pierre Monteux
Since Dvorak's death in 1904, his Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70 has gradually come to be considered his greatest symphonic essay. This, in face of the ever-popular "New World" Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95, whose compositional soundness - in spite of occasional strokes of ingeniousness - has almost as long been called into question (Constant Lambert called the "New World" a "fabricated" work, while the otherwise sympathetic Dvorak scholar Sir Henry Hadow dismissed it as "opportunist"). A superficial glance at both symphonies reveals the extent to which they inhabit very different worlds: Op. 70's practically unrelieved tension and thick atmosphere of introspection, conflict and tragedy; Op. 95's easy-going, extroverted character with its brilliant orchestration and ingratiating "hit-parade" of appealing tunes.
Op. 70 is Dvorak's only symphony written as the result of a commission. In 1884 the Philharmonic Society of London made Dvorak an honorary member and asked him to write a symphony for the Society. The London premiere of the finished work in the following year under the composer's direction was a huge success. The spiritual origins of the D minor Symphony lie deeper, however, and can be traced to a major artistic crisis in Dvorak's life. At this time Dvorak was wrestling with the decision of leaving the confines of a nationalist idiom to seek his fortune as a composer on a more universal, international footing. An ardent admirer of Brahms' symphonic skill in expressing exactly the kind of conflict he was currently experiencing, Dvorak responded with his new work to the former's Third Symphony, which he had recently heard. Actually, the D minor Symphony aims at much more than a respectful "answer in kind" to Brahms because here Dvorak openly strives to outdistance his friend and colleague. Whether or not Dvorak was successful in his ambition is left for the listener to decide.
If doubts can be raised concerning Dvorak's ultimate success with Op. 70, the present writer has nothing of the sort in mind concerning the magnificent - and in some ways unsurpassed - 1959 recorded performance of the work by the London Symphony Orchestra under Pierre Monteux (presented here as a very fine Japanese reissue). I first got to know this recording during the early 1960's from the RCA pressing, which I had discovered in my home town library. In his jacket notes to this issue, RCA's Charles O'Connell attempts to "sell" Op. 70 - still an unfamiliar work carrying the designaton "Symphony No. 2" - as being as irresitibly melodious and full of movement and Slavic flavor as the music we already know from Dvorak's "New World", etc. But sadly, O'Connell finally manages to say very little about Dvorak's dark masterpiece.
What has always struck me concerning Monteux's performance of Op. 70 is its uncanny sense of sustained emotional color, firmly established with the first chords of the work and carried consistently through to the very last. Perhaps a better term for what I mean would be "presence." In Monteux's interpretation, the listener is given the sensation of being addressed, through the music itself, by an individual relating a moving personal experience. The narrative changes, but it is always the same person speaking to us. Of course, there is no hidden "story line" to Op. 70. Nevertheless, there is a haunting similarity of "place" here with Dvorak's Op. 45 Slavonic Rhapsodies, where although a narrative element is strongly suggested, Dvorak scrupulously avoids letting us know what it is.
Monteux reveals himself in this recording as a master of musical empathy. This is only another way of saying that Monteux steps aside and lets the music unfold entirely on its own terms, in its own time and with its own accent. It is precisely this quality of self-effacement on the part of the conductor which is sometimes missing in other recorded performances of Op. 70 - regardless of their respective merits. It's always the same music - and yet it's somehow not quite the same. An outstanding exception worth mentioning is a 1938 recorded performance of Op. 70 - also recorded in London - by the Czech Philharmonic under the great Vaclav Talich. In the end, Monteux modestly refrains from sharing some personal "discovery" over how the music "should" be played (I'm thinking of Harnoncourt's forced and somewhat contrived 1996 live recording of Op. 70) - and simply lets the music do its own thing. And the result is more than impressive.