Thursday, January 8, 2009

Dvorak: Symphony #8

In the eyes of the average casual classical music listener, Dvorak's Eighth Symphony is generally overshadowed by his much more widely known Ninth Symphony.

But in the eyes of true Dvorak lovers, however, the Eighth is more popular by far. Real Dvorak fans cherish the raucous and exuberant folk music of Dvorak's native Bohemia--and that's exactly what suffuses this symphony. It makes listening to this symphony an experience of pure joy. And at an all-too-brief 35 minutes or so in length, this thrilling symphony is over before it begins.
Wolfgang Sawallisch and the Philadelphia Orchestra
Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904)
Symphonies 7 and 8
EMI, 1990
Dvorak's Eighth Symphony is proof that not all great symphonies are conceived in suffering. Occasionally a symphony--like this one, or Brahms' Second--bursts out of a composer during a period of contentment and happiness. And Dvorak composed this entire work in just two and a half months.

Of course it only takes a cursory survey of the landscape of classical music composers to see that this "happiness exception" is just that--an exception.

Listener notes for Dvorak's Eighth Sympony:
1) I'm sorry to complain about bad intonation right off the bat, but is there something about the Philadelphia Orchestra and their principal clarinetist? Listen to the first movement of this CD at the 8:05 mark. Why is this guy so often out of tune?

2) In the second movement, you can hear conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch let out a big grunt after the violin duet and right before the full orchestra enters. It's at about the 4:00 mark. Feel it, Wolfie!

3) How great are the flourishes and ornamentations of the Slavic folk themes throughout the third movement? Grace notes and glissandos abound. What a blast it is to listen to this movement.

4) Also, listen very closely at the 0:52 mark of the third movement for a beautiful, hard to play, and almost throwaway run by the violas (it comes right after the violins finish their own beautiful folk melody; also you'll hear it again at the 4:12 mark). This is sort of emblematic of the "ornaments" in Dvorak's symphonies. If you weren't listening closely, you'd miss the part; but once you know it's there, it's thrilling to hear such a difficult subordinate musical line rise up and then disappear in an instant.

5) The trumpet parts, for lack of a better word, suck in this symphony. They aren't quite as bad as Mozart's oom-pah parts, but they're close (Dvorak has a thing for giving the trumpets "bup bup bup bahhh" parts). It's not until the start of the fourth movement that the principal trumpet gets to shake himself out of rest-counting somnolence and play a real (if brief) part.

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