A New World in old clothes – The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, conducted by Adam Fischer, bring new life to Dvořák’s New World symphony, with Brahms’ Violin Concerto from Viktoria Mullova
Listening link (opens in a new window):
on the iPlayer until 28 March
For those unable to hear the broadcast, here is a Spotify link to the same program – with Viktoria Mullova’s recording of the Brahms included.
What’s the music?
Smetana: The Bartered Bride Overture (1865) (7 minutes)
Brahms: Violin Concerto (1878) (39 minutes)
Dvořák: Symphony no.9 (From the New World) (1893) (45 minutes)
What about the music?
This is a ‘period instrument performance’ – that is, played on instruments either from the time the music was written or before – and performed in a style audiences of the day might have witnessed. It is relatively rare for the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment to venture this far forward in time, for their instruments tend to be more geared towards the performance of music between 1700 and 1850.
They begin with a popular overture, a crowd pleaser – the curtain raiser for Bedřich Smetana’s comic opera The Bartered Bride. The work is something of a Czech institution, full of Smetana’s interpretations of Czech dances such as the polka and furiant. As BBC Radio 3 presenter Martin Handley says, Smetana became ‘the father of Czech nationalism’ through his patriotic and uplifting set of works for orchestra, Ma vlast (My Country), completed in 1879.
Dvořák was a Czech composer, but the action in the New World symphony takes place far from home. Always one to fill his music with good tunes, the composer turned to American heritage for a lot of his source material, declaring in the New York Herald that “In the negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music“. Dvořák was homesick at the time, and the melancholy tinge to some of his tunes reflects that.
The symphony was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and given its first performance in Carnegie Hall in 1893, and has been extremely popular ever since. In recent years themes from it have frequently been heard on TV, most famously when the tune of the second movement Largo was used in a Hovis advert.
In between these Bohemian classics is music by Brahms, his Violin Concerto – which, at the time of composition, was one of the biggest such works around. It was written for the Hungarian virtuoso Joseph Joachim, a composer himself – and he had considerable input into the piece, having also commissioned a concerto from Dvořák. When receiving the parts for the first time Joachim remarked on the symphonic design of the concerto, and on how difficult it was to play – even for him!
The first movement is a big unit in itself, lasting longer than the second and third put together but gripping the listener as a closely fought dialogue between violin and orchestra, both seemingly on equal terms. The third movement finale is based on a gypsy tune, and caught the eye of Paul Thomas Anderson, who chose it for the closing credits of his film There Will Be Blood.
Having emphatically blown away the cobwebs with a vigorous account of the Smetana overture, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment get their teeth into Brahms.
The Violin Concerto benefits from their slightly smaller numbers, and thanks to Fischer’s conducting we can really hear all the inner workings of the orchestral introduction. The pace is relatively slow at this point, but picks up when the violin enters. Mullova’s tone is lovely, though just occasionally in the first movement she is a little ‘under’ the note of the orchestra – which, given the performance is on period instruments, could even be due to the heat in the venue.
The rustic finale has plenty of swagger, enthusiastically led by Mullova, while the slow movement – which seems to go quickly here – is beautifully rendered.
For the Dvořák the lean textures of the orchestra bring out the beauty of his melodies, and also the strong sense of longing the composer felt from New York for his home. The spiritual melodies help him to express this, but Fischer also keeps the spirit of dance to the fore.
What should I listen out for?
2:24 – a brisk and breezy introduction from the orchestra. Soon the violins take up a rushing theme, as do the violas (3:08) and then the cellos and basses. As with much of Smetana’s fast music he generates terrific energy.
Later there is a gentler passage for the woodwind, with a more ‘reedy’ sound than a modern symphony orchestra would provide. This is rudely interrupted by the drums.
The music dips and then comes back with a terrific crescendo, where it feels like the players are standing on tiptoe.
12:08 – a smooth, ‘legato’ start to the first movement, marked Allegro non troppo (fast but not too fast). This is the beginning of a long orchestral introduction. It is a long time before we hear the violin
14:22 – a sudden injection of power from the strings, a moment of real drama in this music that prepares the way for the entry of the violin 20 seconds later.
20:08 – the violin now takes up the energetic music the strings had earlier, and this is taken up by the full orchestra. There follows a lovely unison melody at 21:27.
24:25 – the culmination of the movement, violin soaring above the orchestra.
27:45 – deep unease in the violin part as Brahms writes some very uncertain double stopping for the instrument, with mysterious lower strings, until the injection of power happens again at 28:02. This leads through to…
29:13 – the start of the cadenza, a showy section for violin alone. This is a pivotal part in any performance of the Brahms, as a large number of cadenzas from different composers are available – or the soloist can perform their own. I suspect this one is by Joseph Joachim. The orchestra return at 32:07 and the mood has changed to one of calm reflection – which builds to an affirmative finish at 33:40 – at over twenty minutes, a first movement of impressive size!
34:50 – the start of the slow second movement, marked Adagio (slow). Soothing horns and woodwind set a scene of calm. If the music ever sounds out of tune, this is because the brass have a ‘temperament’ that can be slightly out of kilter on certain notes. If anything it makes the music more authentic! The violin comes in at 36:49 with a sweetly toned melody.
42:34 – a wonderful gypsy tune to begin the finale, which sounds full of the open air. This performance brings out the dance, and Mullova takes the lead effortlessly. Lovely woodwind trills at 43:11 too. The catchy tune appears on a number of occasions, structured by Brahms as a ‘Rondo’, running through to the end at 50:30.
1:16:19 – a solemn introduction on lower strings, then woodwind, before the full orchestra interrupt suddenly. Gradually the tension builds before a statement of the main theme of this movement from the horn (1:18:08)
1:18:38 – full brass on the theme, then the texture drops to 1:19:09 and a dance-like melody.
1:20:17 – another tune from the flute, slightly mournful this time, but then given more power by the brass (1:20:44), at which point the horn returns to the tune from the opening.
1:25:19 – the recap of the symphony’s themes so far begins with the horn once again, then the introverted flute tune (1:26:01), then moving seamlessly to the slighty mournful flute tune (1:27:01) – again heard with much greater power a few moments later. There is then a tautly argued close.
1:29:26 – the famous second movement Largo begins, with its homesick melody first heard on the cor anglais at 1:30:07. This is wonderfully controlled by the OAE’s Gonzalo X. Ruiz.
1:32:09 – a more involved section starts with the strings gradually moving the music on by way of a variation on the main theme. Beautifully hushed in this performance. Then the cor anglais returns at 1:33:01.
1:34:02 – the music switches key from major to minor and a darker shadow emerges, but at 1:37:10 this is emphatically put to rights by the woodwind – and then we hear a reference to the first movement in the loudest part of the Largo.
1:38:03 – the tune returns, again on the cor anglais – and then we get the solemn music of the brass introduction, now closing a rather special reverie.
1:41:48 – the third movement (a Scherzo) begins, with spiky fragments from flute and clarinet, taken up by the violins at 1:42:17 and debated by the whole orchestra. This section is repeated.
1:43:23 – another winsome melody from Dvorak, begun by the woodwinds, before the music works its way back round to the mood of the opening.
1:44:46 – this symphony has its mysterious moments, and here is another from the cellos and basses – before yet another catchy melody begins in the woodwinds at 1:45:07. This works around to another statement of the main tune (1:47:10). The orchestral sound is still wide open, as though standing on the prairie. We hear all the tunes again, then the horn brings in another reference from the symphony’s first movement at 1:49:08.
1:49:53 – a terrific sense of expectation with the introduction to the final movement here, justified by the theme that appears on the brass at 1:50:10. This is music of great resilience. Then at 1:51:05 an equally thrilling and persuasive dance tune appears. Yet another big and resilient tune appears at 1:52:31.
1:55:31 – at this point Dvorak brings back the main theme from the symphony’s first movement, now in defiant guise, with extra input from the brass. This theme effectively ‘resets’ the symphony, the feeling now of greater resolution – even when Dvorak skilfully combines two themes at 1:58:35 and we hear some pretty discordant music. The music subsides until…
1:59:57 – the coda of the symphony, with a solemn utterance of its first theme, then proclaimed by the orchestra to an ultimately winning finish over rolling timpani, ending at 2:01:10.
Want to hear more?
How about some dances? All three composers wrote dances for orchestra, so here is a playlist combining two other dances from Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, some Hungarian Dances by Brahms and finally some of Dvořák’s winsome Slavonic Dances with Adam Fischer. As another bonus, dropped into the middle is Dvořák’s own Violin Concerto, written for Joachim and played here by Julia Fischer:
For more concerts click here