Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Dvorak: Symphony #7

It's ironic that Dvorak's Seventh Symphony and his Eighth Symphony are commonly found on the same CD, because they are a study in contrasts. The Seventh Symphony is as dark and stormy as the Eighth is joyful. The Eighth is suffused with Slavic folk tunes, while the Slavic themes in the Seventh, if they show themselves at all, appear late in the work in camouflaged form.
Wolfgang Sawallisch and the Philadelphia Orchestra
Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904)
Symphonies 7 and 8
EMI, 1990
But there is one thing Dvorak's Seventh and Eighth Symphonies inevitably share: both are unjustifiably overshadowed by his more commonly performed Ninth.

I'm grateful that this blog has caused to listen closely to these two symphonies. Until I started this blog I had never heard Dvorak's Sixth, Seventh or Eighth Symphonies, despite the fact that for years they've been sitting over on my CD rack collecting dust.

Listener notes for Dvorak's Seventh Symphony:

1) It's dramatic how the first movement fades away into nothing, isn't it?

2) Once again, AGGGH! on the clarinetist in the Philly Orchestra! He's reliably off-key (usually flat) throughout the symphony. The solo early on in the second symphony is particularly bad, as is the particularly awful off-key and poorly phrased solo at the 3:50 mark in the second movement. I can't help but reflexively cringe every time the clarinet comes in, since I'm waiting for a mistake or an off-key note. I know I need to let this go, but it is horrifying to me that an otherwise world-class symphony could have an important musician this subpar. How does this guy keep his job?

3) Listen for a barely perceptible mistake in the string section, during the final two chords of the second movement. Some of the second violins hold that chord longer than they are supposed to and break off abruptly right before the final, soft chord. Oops.

4) It's not until the third movement scherzo that we finally get a little Bohemian action--but as I mentioned above, these folk music-inspired themes seem restrained and camouflaged somehow.

5) Interesting transition to the major key at the very end of the fourth movement. One one hand it makes the music sound triumphant, but on the other hand, it sounds like the symphonic equivalent of a Hollywood ending.


Tom said...

Hi, and thanks for reviewing this fantastic symphony. I've heard that Dvorak was suffering after the death of his mother and eldest child - which might explain its stormy nature.
I've got a great recording of this by the London Symphony Orchestra, led by Istvan Kertesz - the clarinets are spot on in that lovely lilting melody near the start of the 1st movement that you mentioned - it sounds to me like Dvorak is reminiscing fondly about his family, before a minute or so later we hear the true nature of his emotions - the same clarinet tune but with the whole orchestra blazing it out, particularly the brass and timpani. What I find fascinating is that this theme is in a major key, but the emotions it conjures up (for me, anyway) are entirely negative - raw aching sadness, pain and anger.

PS Have you got any plans to review a Schumann symphony this year? I'd be thrilled!

Tom said...

I've just realised you meant a clarinet solo in the second movement! Still, the one I was thinking of, in the first movement, is worth listening out for to - it's a wonderful moment of lightness and calm before the storm.

Daniel said...

Hi Tom, thanks for reading and for your comment. I'll have to check out that recording you mentioned--anything to hear an in-tune clarinetist... :)

And I don't actually own any Schumann symphonies but perhaps I'll get one or two now that you've mentioned it!


Tom said...

You definitely should check out Schumann! Start out with the 3rd Symphony - the Rhenish. Within a few seconds of the first movement you'll hear exactly where Brahms got his inspiration from for his own 3rd Symphony. I'm a woodwind player (oboe), but Schumann's symphonies make me want to take up a brass instrument! You'll hear what I mean.