UNFAILINGLY CHARMING : Dvorak: From the New World
The MHS Review 408, VOL. 12, NO.12• 1988
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David M. Greene
As many of my readers (if any) are aware, there is presently, in academic circles, an attack on forcing students to become acquainted with "the canon"--i.e. what used to be called "the great books" or "the literary classics." This attack is part of the fashionable neo-Marxist thinking of the erstwhile rich bourgeois kids who manned the barricades in the late Sixties, and who find themselves with no more real causes to fight for. Their argument is that the canon was foisted upon us by the racist, chauvinist, capitalist Establishment bent on treading down whatever minorities were available to their winepress.
So far, I have discerned no such move against the musical canon. The Music Everybody Loves seems firmly in the saddle, and in no danger of being unseated. Curiously, this situation appears unaffected by Academe, which for the last 40 years has been manfully committed to Musical Progress in the name of whatever -isms may be in compositional fashion at the moment. At the lower educational levels, the forces that established the canon--"Music Appreciation," Deems Taylor, Sigmund Spaeth, and the Telephone Hour--have long since vanished. What we are apparently seeing in operation here is inertia in a pure form.
Back in the days when we consulted the oracles to learn what the Good Stuff was, the E minor was the Dvorak symphony, despite the mysterious fact that it bore the number five. We knew, of course, that there must be (or have been) four others, but we didn't concern ourselves with them since it was self-evident they weren't worth bothering with. In an excess of quixoticism, RCA, around 1940, made available recordings of nos. 2 and 4, played in a burst of patriotic feeling by some of Dvorak's homefolks. Czechoslovakia was then understandably front-page news, but, speaking as a record clerk in a major music store in a major city, I can attest that the customers did not beat down the doors. It was not until after the War that we discovered that there were four more symphonies than the assumed five.
What I am getting at, I suppose, is people's tendency not to get off the dime. The Schwann CD catalog shows almost as many recordings of the Ninth Symphony as it does of the other eight together. (Most of the rest are of nos. 7 and 8, hoi polloi having accepted "nos. 2 and 4" as kosher after 50 years.) This is not the result of ignorance or stupidity on the part of the manufacturers; it's just good economics, based on a knowledge of what people will buy. Yet (take it from one who's been there!) Dvorak is an unfailingly charming and lovable composer throughout the body of his works, whatever technical flaws may give the experts pause.
It was some such train of thought that aroused my dandruff against this record and caused me to postpone hearing it until the last possible moment. Not that I dislike the symphony, which is surely a masterpiece, and sounds even better when one disabuses oneself of the garbage about its "Indian" and "Negro" themes and forgets as best one can William Arms Fisher's "spiritual" lyrics to the Largo. But besides my normal urge toward elitism, I asked myself why MHS should opt to bring out a version led by Zdenek Macal (of whom I knew nothing) if not to cash in in the dig-it-all mania.
Well, it turns out that Mr. Macal is a 52-year-old Czech with an international repute as a Dvorakist, and that he leads one hell of a performance here, in crystalline sound. The 1984 Penguin Guide has this to say: "Macal's is an outstanding performance, fresh, sparkling, and incisively dramatic, beautifully played and brilliantly recorded in excellent digital sound. Even making allowance for price [it was on a "bargain" label in the UK], it stands at or near the top of a long list. Macal as a Czech takes a fresh and unsentimental view with speeds far steadier than usual in the first movement. Yet with idiomatic insights there is no feeling of brutality or rigidity, with the beauty of the slow movement purified, the Scherzo crisp and energetic set against pastoral freshness in the episodes [a stunning reading), and the finale, again strong and direct, bringing a ravishing clarinet solo." The Gramophone review echoes all this, calling the record ''arguably the best-sounding New World at any price," and adding that even if you have a favorite recording on your shelf, you should get this one as a backup!
Review for Dvorak: From the New World on page 67