October 09, 2008


Dvořák: Symphony No. 9, “From the New World”; Schumann: Konzertstück for Four Horns and Orchestra. David Guerrier, Antoine Dreyfuss, Emmanuel Padieu and Bernard Schirrer, horns; Le Chambre Philharmonique conducted by Emmanuel Krivine. Naïve. $16.99.

The Pyongyang Concert—Wagner: Prelude to Act III of “Lohengrin”; Dvořák: Symphony No. 9, “From the New World”; Gershwin: An American in Paris; Bizet: Farandole from “L’Arlésienne Suite No. 2”; Bernstein: Overture to “Candide”; Traditional: Arirang. New York Philharmonic conducted by Lorin Maazel. Medici Arts DVD. $24.99.

     Location, location, location: it can matter as much for the creation of a musical work, and for the audience that hears it, as it does in real estate. Here are two recordings featuring the same ultra-popular Dvořák symphony, both offering excellent playing and fine interpretative nuances, but having a very different effect because of the circumstances under which the recordings were made.

     Le Chambre Philharmonique under Emmanuel Krivine offers a studio recording that is well paced, well played and thoroughly musicianly – and is distinguished by the use of period instruments. This may seem odder to listeners than it would in a recording of, say, Bach; but the fact is that Victorian symphonic instruments did differ in various respects (use of gut strings, being constructed of different materials) from those in common use today. The result of the period-instrument use is to present Dvořák’s final symphony much as it must have sounded at its 1893 premiere; the distinctive timpani sound is a particular pleasure. Interestingly, this recording makes it easy to put the work – which is from the New World but not of it – in a more-balanced perspective. The prominence of American tunes – including what were then called Negro spirituals – is balanced by the distinctly Slavonic dance rhythms of which Dvořák was so fond. The result is a performance that de-Americanizes the symphony without making it seem wholly Czech. It is hard to escape the idea that this is the way the composer probably wanted his work to be heard.

     The original-instrument approach makes an even bigger difference in Schumann’s Konzertstück for Four Horns and Orchestra than in the Dvořák, since the Schumann was written nearly half a century earlier and there were major horn developments as the 19th century progressed. The four fine soloists cannot conceal the fact that this piece is a stretch for the instruments of its time – indeed, Schumann seems to have wanted to explore the furthest reaches of which the horns of his time, when the valved horn was still fairly new, were capable. The Konzertstück is mostly bright and upbeat, its positive sentiments quite at odds with the difficulties the soloists must have in playing it. On this CD, it both contrasts with the Dvořák and makes an effective encore to it.

     What is especially effective in The Pyongyang Concert is not the instruments used or even the quality of the playing – although that is excellent, with the New York Philharmonic rising above its sometimes-pedestrian sound to give Lorin Maazel all the delicacy and power he could wish. What matters most is the venue: North Korea. This is the famous (some would say notorious) concert that either opened the secretive, repressive Communist regime to the Western world in an important way or legitimized that regime to an unfortunate extent. Despite the divergent political views connected with the concert, it is a wonderful musical experience with especially well-chosen repertoire. Although the Dvořák symphony is the longest work and the centerpiece of the performance, it is the inclusion of two works that really are American through and through that makes a strong statement from and about the musicians. Gershwin’s An American in Paris and Bernstein’s overture to Candide both use the orchestra in ways about as different from socialist realism as possible – yet both works are catchy, accessible and easy to enjoy without regard to political content. The Wagner and Bizet selections, also upbeat, reflect bits of Europe and provide a level of internationalism to the orchestra’s appearance. And the concluding Arirang, a bow to the host country, neatly buttons up a concert that starts with the dual national anthems of North Korea and the United States. It is far too soon to know whether this concert was a one-off or an early opening into a closed society. The documentary included as a bonus on the DVD, “Americans in Pyongyang,” attempts to be balanced but, perhaps not surprisingly, is mostly positive in tone. The one thing that is sure about this performance is that the music-making itself is of very high quality, even if Maazel’s comment that the February 26, 2008 concert created “a new-found spirit of understanding” may be somewhat overstating the geopolitical success of the New York Philharmonic’s trip.

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