Recording of April 1990: Dvorák: Symphony 9

DVORÁK: Symphony 9, "From the New World"
WAGNER: Flying Dutchman Overture, Siegfried-Idyll

Jascha Horenstein, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Chesky Records CD 31 (CD only). Bob Katz, remastering eng.; David & Norman Chesky, executive prods. (Original 1962 recordings: K. E. Wilkinson, eng.; Charles Gerhardt, prod.) ADD. TT: 67:30

There are over 50 "New Worlds" in the catalog. Whether you have every one of them or none of them, buy this one. It is fat with passion. The great conductor Jascha Horenstein had it; original engineer Kenneth Wilkinson had it; the Chesky Records staff had it; the third-chair trombonist had it. Pure, ripened, bone-true passion.

The only recording I have heard that comes close to sounding as much like a real orchestra as this one is the Bainbridge release of Hindemith's Mathis der Maler, reviewed in Vol.13 No.1. I flirted with temerity in hyping the sound of that CD. This one is better. Not by much—that wouldn't be possible—but by enough to leave little question about it.

Nor will Horenstein's interpretation leave you doubting. There is a sense of inevitability in this music, as though it could never conceivably be played any other way. (Nonsense, of course, but that's how convincing it is.) This reading is the antithesis of a Toscanini charge. Tempos may not vary all that much, but Horenstein's rubato (in the pure sense of the term) gives the work a Romantic depth that makes performances of stricter regimentation seem anemic. The phrasing of the RPO is never less than astonishing. Every line sounds as though sung by the human voice, so spiritually crafted is it.

The second movement is extremely slow, but its pace doesn't really register until you look at the timing. It just sounds right. The only possible faltering is in the final movement, where the conservative tempo of the coda fails to lend a solid feeling of finality.

At the core of the nearly unprecedented sound quality of this CD is its timbre. Even on a modest sound system, the illusion of real instruments will be overwhelming. You hear the wood vibrating on the cellos, the splattering blat of brass, the carved-in-air breathiness of the flute. Credit must be given to Chesky's remastering engineer Bob Katz: That so much musical truth could have been captured at the 1962 original event is amazing enough; that it could have been transferred to another medium with such purity almost defies belief.

And there's more than an hour of it on the disc! Not only do we get the superb performance of Dvorák's Ninth, but Wagner's Siegfried-Idyll and Flying Dutchman Overture are added in renditions nearly as gratifying.

How many outstanding performances of the "New World" are there among the dozens available? More than a few. Ranking among the highest are the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell and the RPO under Antal Dorati (along with Horenstein, a greatly underrated conductor of our time). But it is to Horenstein that I will continue to draw comparisons. Although he may conduct a bit too rich a mix for the most ascetic, the soulfulness of this music is, and will always be, undeniable.—Robert Hesson