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Jerry Dubins
Fanfare, May 2011

This is the third release in Marin Alsop’s Dvořák cycle with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra...and I have to say that this series is going from strength to strength. Without a doubt, this latest arrival is the best yet, and the previous releases were already in the very-good-to-excellent category.

Apparently, our editor red-penciled an entire paragraph from my review of Alsop’s Seventh and Eighth CD. Had it remained in place, it would have explained that the work we now count as Dvořák’s Symphony No. 6 was at one time his No. 1, and that only after four earlier symphonies surfaced around the middle of the 20th century were all of them renumbered to reflect their correct chronological order, as follows:

Date Key Old # New # B/Op. #

1865 C Minor 1 9

1865/77 B♭ Major 2 12/4

1873/77 E♭ Major 3 34/10

1874/77 D Minor 4 41/13

1875/77 F Major   3 5 54/76

1880 D Major 1 6 112/60

1884-5 D Minor 2 7 141/70

1889 G Major 4 8 163/88

1893 E Minor 5 9 178/95

The Sixth had a rocky start. Hans Richter, then conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic, persuaded Dvořák to compose a symphony after the warm reception the composer received from the orchestra during rehearsal of his Slavonic Rhapsody No. 3. Brahms, who attended the rehearsal, was also favorably impressed, but the performance was less well received by the Viennese audience. Dvořák set out to write the symphony Richter had requested, fully expecting the conductor and orchestra to premiere it when it was completed the following year. But in the interim, objections were raised and Richter caved. Disappointed, Dvořák turned to conductor Adolf Čech, who premiered the work with the Czech Philharmonic in Prague in 1881. Richter finally reclaimed his manhood when he led a performance of the symphony in London in 1882. Vienna, meanwhile, had to wait until all of the old-timers in its orchestra faded away, before the VPO took up Dvořák’s Sixth for the first time 60 years later in 1942. But then we’re talking about an exclusive men’s club that resisted admitting women until 1997.

Much has been made of Dvořák’s relationship with Brahms at the time, and how the former’s Sixth Symphony was strongly influenced by the latter’s Second, completed three years earlier. The parallels, beyond the D-Major tonality both works share, are too many and too obvious to be coincidental. A. Peter Brown, in The Second Golden Age of the Viennese Symphony, has written that both symphonies have the same scoring, tempo, and meter in the first and last movements; and David R. Beveridge, in Romantic Ideas in a Classical Frame, cites the cyclical aspect of both scores in which their fourth-movement primary themes relate back to the primary first-movement themes. Then too, it cannot be denied that some of Dvořák’s thematic material has a familiar Brahmsian ring. But in at least two areas, Dvořák is his own man; rhythmically and melodically, elements of Czech folk song and dance are never far from the surface, such that no one would ever mistake this for a work by Brahms. Nowhere is this more evident than in the furiant Scherzo, a movement shot through with Dvořák’s distinctive Slavic peasantry.

In a field of Dvořák Sixths where quite a few dwellers claim ownership rights to the same acreage, Alsop and her Baltimore ensemble really make a compelling case in their favor. In 33:5, I was highly impressed with a new recording from an unexpected source, Jac van Steen and the Dortmund Philharmonic on MDG, which I found poised and lyrically inflected, if not perhaps quite as fluid and naturally flowing as versions by the Czech Philharmonic under Neumann, Bělohlávek, Mackerras, and Pešek. But the Baltimore band under Alsop delivers something different, and perhaps more, a performance with an American accent. By that I mean an edge, an energy, a thrust, and a forward-driving momentum that seem to be less in evidence in other recordings I’ve heard. One hears it in the bloom and solidity of the string sections, the commanding authority of the brass, and the luminosity of the winds. Alsop has the Baltimore orchestra playing like it’s in the top 10.

Filling out the disc are the B-Major Nocturne and the Scherzo capriccioso. The Nocturne is a transcription of the Andante religioso movement from the composer’s E-Minor String Quartet.

It’s probably belittling to call the Scherzo capriccioso, at 15 minutes in length, mere filler. Written in 1875, it’s a fully worked-out movement that bears Dvořák’s native Czech stamp. It anticipates both the Slavonic Rhapsodies of three years later and, in some ways, the style the composer would adopt for his popular Carnival Overture of 1891. You have to love the way what goes around comes around. In 1883, two years after the VPO had refused to premiere Dvořák’s Sixth Symphony, the composer was invited to London, where the Scherzo capriccioso and other of his works were enthusiastically received. Meanwhile, his reputation having grown, he received an offer from Vienna to write a German opera, an offer he snubbed. I’d love to read the letter he must have written declining the invitation.

Go Alsop. This one is hard to beat. Conductor and orchestra have their work cut out for them to equal or better this release with their hopefully forthcoming 1 through 5.

Kara Dahl Russell
The WSCL Blog, March 2011

The BSO has made it a mission to record all of Dvořák’s symphonies, and the results have been beautiful. This CD includes not only the full symphony, but also two shorter works, Nocturne in B major, Op. 40, and Scherzo Capriccioso, Op. 66.

Roger Hecht
American Record Guide, March 2011

Alsop…allows Dvořák to sing. And dance, too, thanks to the nice lift to her beat. The Baltimore Symphony’s clear-toned woodwinds, polite brass, and dark, creamy (our Editor’s word) strings support these qualities.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

Richard Lawrence
Classic FM, February 2011

From the syncopated opening to the mighty unison phrase at the end, Alsop judges the tempo of the first movement very well. The music rolls on like a broad river: stately, unhurried, always certain of its destination. It takes up a third of the duration of the symphony, because Alsop follows Dvořák’s repeat markings. In the furious Scherzo the exuberance of the Baltimore players transports you straight to a Bohemian meadow; the waltz tune in the Scherzo Capriccioso sounds equally authentic…a fine addition to the cycle; the symphony really goes with a swing, and the fill-ups are equally well done.

Bill Gowen
Daily Herald (IL), January 2011

The first recorded Dvořák symphony cycle by an American orchestra following Zdenek Macal’a cycle with the Milwaukee Symphony for Koss Classics in the early 1990s, nears the halfway mark (Symphonies Nos. 6–9 are now available) with Alsop leading idiomatic Bohemian interpretations of this music. The Sixth Symphony, recorded at Baltimore’s Meyerhoff Hall, sounds great, the two “fillers” slightly less so, but this is a real treat, especially at Naxos’ bargain price.

Brian Reinhart
MusicWeb International, January 2011

I had a lukewarm response to Marin Alsop’s Dvořák Ninth with the Baltimore Symphony, and was hard-pressed to find anything special about it. I felt the same way about her Eighth and was harshly critical of the Seventh. But now, just when I was ready to write off Alsop’s Dvořák cycle entirely, she offers an unquestionably superb Sixth.

This is a performance of the symphony which has nearly every advantage: lively tempi in the outer movements which ensure that things move along excitingly, a full orchestral sound with especially commanding brass, and sound which puts the listener in the center of the concert hall. At first I thought that the timing of the first movement (16:12) was a misprint, but no: Alsop, like Witold Rowicki and almost nobody else, takes the first-movement repeat. True, Dvořák felt the repeat was best left aside, but Alsop and her band make a great case for it, especially at the vigorous tempi they have chosen. It feels right: the music moves along with freshness and life.

The adagio is good. However, Václav Talich’s luxuriously slow adagio (13:28) has utterly ruined most rivals for me; Talich and his Czech Philharmonic linger lovingly over every single woodwind solo in a way which might well strike some as excessive. I, however, adore it, and as good as Alsop is, her adagio sounds rather ordinary in comparison. Not that she can be faulted: sounding ordinary, too, are Kubelík, Ancerl, Rowicki, and Mackerras, although Otmar Suitner conjures up his own magical effects.

The scherzo is lively but a bit herky-jerky next to Kubelík’s—does the main tune get faster after the trio? The finale is hugely exciting and benefits from splendid brass and wind playing, especially in the thrilling coda. The trombones, especially, have a satisfying weight which makes their appearances memorable. All in all, I would say that this eclipses the previous Naxos effort with the Slovak Philharmonic and Stephen Gunzenhauser—that sounds like a grudging compliment, but in fact Gunzenhauser’s Sixth is very good—and will please both Dvořákians and newcomers. The best digital account is probably that from Charles Mackerras on Supraphon—which has a simply blazing finale and the glorious Czech Philharmonic—but any buyer has to consider this.

The couplings are not bad either. The Nocturne is simply gorgeous, and sounds ahead of its time. Marin Alsop gave us my preferred recording of Barber’s Adagio (with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra) and in many ways the Dvořák Nocturne is a perfect complement: both string orchestra scores with immediate lyrical and emotional appeal, unusually deep and reflective in mood, in neighboring keys (B flat minor and B major), and achieving nearly exactly opposite effects. No wonder Alsop is so assured here. The Scherzo capriccioso is less unambiguously a success: it sounds as if Alsop has knowingly traded rhythmic snap and energy for tonal allure. The advantage is that the Baltimore Symphony sounds really wonderful; the disadvantage is that the scherzo is not as capriccioso as Kubelík, Dohnányi or Mariss Jansons would have it. Kudos to Alsop, though, for observing the trio’s repeat, something those three men fail to do.

The last CD in this series was one of my two least favorite CDs of 2010. So what has changed between this installment and previous ones? First, Alsop has had a predilection for fast tempi which helped ruin her Seventh but suits the outer movements of the Sixth well; second, her orchestra is one I have described as a Brahms orchestra, with full, rich strings, and the Baltimore Symphony is therefore better-suited to the Sixth as well. Equally importantly, the sound engineers here finally give the winds a bit of room to breathe. The timpani are still rather recessed, but the brass have much more of a say here than they did in the Seventh, where they occasionally seemed to have been caught napping or in another room. The trombones, as mentioned, earn a really satisfying prominence.

The bottom line: this is the best (so far) of Marin Alsop’s Dvořák, by a long shot. Admirers of the Sixth Symphony will find much to enjoy. If you have been collecting this series, invest in the new volume with confidence, and then sell the earlier issues at a rummage sale.

Brian Wilson
MusicWeb International, January 2011

Having praised Marin Alsop’s version of the New World Symphony (8.570714) and been slightly sniffy about her coupling of Nos. 7 and 8 (8.572112), I’m happy to report that she’s back on track here. I usually concur with the view that Dvořák’s Sixth Symphony contains distinct echoes of Brahms, but Alsop also reminds us of the work’s Czech credentials even more than Sir Charles Mackerras with the Czech Philharmonic on Supraphon. Much as I enjoyed this new Naxos release, however, I’m still going to rate that Mackerras recording as equally, if not even more, essential. Choice of coupling could be your deciding factor: a wonderful account of The Golden Spinning Wheel on Supraphon against the wonderfully ebullient Scherzo Capriccioso and the Nocturne here. Though the performances were recorded live, the Baltimore audience is mercifully un-bronchitic.

WRUV Reviews, December 2010

Antonín Dvořák ( 1841–1904) is seen as a nationalistic composer, incorporating Czech traditional melodies into his works (also American elements, since he lived here for a few years). He began working as a zither player before his professional music education. These are lush, flowing works. Play any!

Tim Smith
The Baltimore Sun, December 2010

If you’ve got a classical music lover on your gift list this year, I’ve got some suggestions that might earn you an appreciative response. I’ll be posting them over the next few days.

To start, how about something nice and local? There’s a just-released recording by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Marin Alsop.

This one completes a Dvořák series for the Naxos label with a very appealing performance of the composer’s Symphony No. 6.

Right from the start, it’s a winner, as Alsop and the ensemble pull you gently, but firmly, into one of Dvořák’s sunniest worlds.

This work doesn’t get nearly the attention of the 7th, 8th and 9th symphonies, but it should. (Those pieces are on the BSO’s first two Dvořák CDs.) The Sixth offers a feast of ingratiating melody and prismatic orchestration, qualities that Alsop brings out effectively.

Hallmarks of the music director’s BSO tenure—more disciplined articulation and keener rhythmic precision in the ensemble—shine through here. The strings sound rich and lithe, the woodwinds beguiling, the brass rich and powerful.

In addition to the Sixth, the album includes a beautifully shaded account of the Nocturne in B major and a vibrantly delivered Scherzo Capriccioso.

The BSO/Alsop Dvořák cycle has been quite successful, with many a plaudit in the musical press. I’d call this release the best of the set, with an extra glow in the orchestra’s sound and an extra degree of spontaneity in the playing.

Rob Cowan
Gramophone, December 2010

Marin Alsop’s Dvořák series continues and is in the best form to date

The first significant plus-point on this warmly played new account of Dvořák’s Sixth Symphony is that Marin Alsop observes the long first-movement exposition repeat, which not only promotes the movement’s overall timing from a sizeable 13-minute average to a generous 16’12” but additionally allows us access to a beautiful bridge passage (into the repeat) that would otherwise have remained mute on the page of the score. Alsop’s approach to this sunniest of symphonic first movements is perky, well paced and appreciative of the music’s many shifting perspectives. In the development section—surely the most intimate in Dvořák’s entire symphonic output—the excellent Baltimore players bring their own quietly distinctive personalities to the various dialoguing lines (the woodwinds are outstanding), and there’s plenty of energy in both the Scherzo and the finale, the latter showing Alsop’s now familiar skill at balancing tempi and dynamics so that the musical arguments make perfect sense.

Rivals? There are some good ones around, with two conducted by Rafael Kubelík (the Bavarian Radio Symphony broadcast on Orfeo is the one to go for, A/01) and, with the Czech Philharmonic, Sir Charles Mackerras (Supraphon, 10/04), fresh as always but not as thoughtful as Chandos’s beautifully recorded Jiři Bělohlávek version (11/93), nor as delicately pointed as the much earlier Ančerl account (Supraphon, 11/03), while Karel Sejna’s early 1950s (6/54R) version is still something of a post-war benchmark. Jac van Steen and the Dortmund Philharmonic (MDG) provide nicely aerated textures and if you want burning lyricism and a glimpse of the epic dimension, then Václav Talich is definitely your man (with a pre-war Czech Phil on Naxos Historical).

But for those without a specific interpretative agenda, Alsop’s warmly blended Naxos recording will do very nicely, and her fill ups—the gorgeous Nocturne (taken from an earlier string quartet) and the ever-vivacious Scherzo capriccioso—could hardly prove more prove more appropriate as couplings. Both extend the verdant mood set by the Symphony, and both are given lively, well-judged performances. I’d say that this is the finest issue so far in Alsop’s Dvořák series. Whatever else she does or doesn’t choose to give us, if she hasn’t already done so I hope she will have a gander at the Fifth Symphony, which I’m sure would go down a treat. Maybe follow Supraphon’s example (for Sejna) and couple it with the equally unfamiliar but equally delightful Slavonic Rhapsodies.

James Inverne
Gramophone, December 2010

This Dvořák series has been truly joyful and that again is the word I would use here. Rob Cowan, in his review, suggests that it is the finest entry yet. The way Alsop and her Baltimore forces ease into that contented beginning to the Sixth Symphony and just as quickly assert a sense of musical character to their playing is a sure indicator of what is to follow. An entirely satisfying, characterful account.

Jan Smaczny
BBC Music Magazine, December 2010

As in [Marin Alsop’s] recordings of the last three Dvořák symphonies, her attention to detail gives pride of place to the exquisite use of instruments aided in no small measure by superb playing from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. At every turn in this excellently recorded performance, the balance reveals Dvořák’s instinctive feeling for evocative instrumental combinations, cases in point being the freewheeling start of the finale and the magical opening of the first movement. Equally impressive is Alsop’s sense of line, especially in the finale and slow movement where rarely heard depths are revealed.

Sterling Beeaff
KBAQ, November 2010

CD of the Week

( Phoenix, AZ ) In another stellar Naxos recording of the music of Dvořák, Marin Alsop leads the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in the composer’s 6th symphony, plus a nocturne and the Scherzo capriccioso, Op. 66.

Nigel Simeone
International Record Review, November 2010

In short, at super-budget price this is a fantastic bargain: it is a very good Dvořák Sixth indeed and one that surely is not going to disappoint. Its predecessors in this Baltimore series have been very good but this may be the best of the lot.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, November 2010

The concluding disc of Dvořák’s last four symphonies recorded in concert performances by Marin Alsop and the Baltimore orchestra. As with the two discs already released [Symphonies Nos. 7 & 8 Naxos 8.572112 and Symphony No. 9 Naxos 8.570714], she takes a very literal view of the Sixth, removing the encrustations and performing traditions that are seen as ‘typically Czech’. So we have a big and often dramatic reading, dynamics faithfully observed, each movement being shaped in long spans without those unmarked changes of pulse that have become commonplace in Czech orchestra recordings. Neither do we have their dominant horns in the opening movement, the following Adagio emerging without any sentimental overlay or exaggerated cellos in the central section. Alsop ups the adrenalin flow in a fast and urgent Scherzo, the tempo changes smoothed out to give seamless continuity. You may have also grown tired of the overstated pianissimo markings that are here avoided. A big and highly charged finale completes this excellently played and purposeful view of the score. Listen to the detail in the scurrying strings leading into the work’s conclusion to appreciate the detailed rehearsal involved. You will find Alsop’s avoidance of mannerism continues through the sleepy Nocturne and into a boisterous reading of the Scherzo capriccioso. Preserve your old Barbirolli disc of the Scherzo with the utmost care, but this new one is among the best presently available. The engineers have captured a nice concert hall balance, with the strings up front and horns and brass set well back, though I guess they have helped the woodwind balance in solo passages. It is good that Naxos have removed audience applause.

David Hurwitz, November 2010

This is a tough call. The performance of the Sixth Symphony is mostly excellent, particularly in the first two movements. Marin Alsop takes the first-movement exposition repeat and paces the music perfectly—lively enough to generate real excitement, but sufficiently measured to capture all of the details of Dvořák’s delicious scoring. She’s attentive to the important bass lines (check out the coda) and gives the contribution of the trombones due weight. Her reading of the Adagio has the same qualities: poetic, flowing, and full of characterful detail. The scherzo would have benefited from even sharper rhythms in the strings, but this is a small point. In the opening of the finale Alsop indulges a habit she has of making a slight ritard during a crescendo, and then sprinting forward. Sometimes it works, but here it checks the music’s forward impetus. Once past the first minute, though, the rest of the performance goes splendidly.

Then we get to the couplings. The Nocturne, like the symphony, is really well paced. This remarkable little movement began life as a piece of Dvořák’s Fourth quartet. It sounds like it could have come from Wagner’s Siegfried-Idyll, except that it actually was written earlier. The Scherzo capriccioso, though, is a disaster. This has to be one of the dullest, clunkiest performances it has ever received, and while not as big as the symphony it’s unquestionably a major work. Lasting a bit more than 15 minutes, Alsop’s rendition is almost 20 percent slower than, say, Kubelik’s lively romp on DG, and the difference is deadly. Marin, Marin, what on earth were you thinking? It’s a pity, because the symphony really is recommendable, and the sonics are quite good; but you will have to decide if you want that work shackled to this dreary Scherzo capriccioso.

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