While Brahms, Bruckner and Wagner have all had the period instrument treatment – to a greater or lesser extent – Antonín Dvořák's best-known symphony only now receives a performance on authentic instruments courtesy of Emmanuel Krivine and his La Chambre Philharmonique, on Naïve.
Dvořák's 'New World' Symphony is a gift for any decent orchestra and conductor, where we are used to robustness of sound and tonal sheen reinforcing the power and dramatic drive of this great piece. I have to see this as the reason why my initial reaction to this release was slightly ambivalent: at first hearing the sound seemed undernourished without the benefits of greater clarity, and Krivine's reading came across as undramatic. However, on repeated – closer – listening and after my ears had adjusted to the sound I realised how wrong I'd been: the relatively small orchestra (the booklet names just eight first and second violins) definitely lacks the big-boned sound we're used to and there are the usual small issues with unruly period wind instruments but the clarity achieved is revalatory. The improved definition is exemplified and underpinned by the characteristic, sharply percussive sound of hard-sticked timpani.
As if to emphasise the lean orchestral sound, Krivine favours tightly clipped ends of phrases yet there's no shortage of long-breathed lyricism, with the big horn theme a couple of minutes into the opening or, of course, in the famous Largo. The string players employ limited vibrato, sometimes to slightly disconcerting effect, but with the violins split antiphonally and Krivine's sensitive ear for voicing, it is often remarkable just how much detail one can hear, the glossy sheen often used in this work is removed to reveal its ingeniously crafted inner workings. I also enjoyed the judicious use of portamento in the violins. Every note in the tremolandos is audible and the work of the woodwind, in particular, is never obscured; the big closing statements of the first and final movements come across as remarkably uncongested, for once.
On the whole, Krivine choses tempos that flow nicely but are never rushed. He maintains a fluid attitude to the pulse which is valuable in the first movement in particular, as it moves from drama to lyricism and back. The Largo is tender but performed with refreshing simplicity and there's a wonderful warmth to the brass interjections (listen to their first, full chord at 2'27). The string playing again is beautifully controlled, both in providing a delicate cushion for the wind soloists and when they get their own brief interludes (from around 2'30 to 3'15, for example, or in the solo strings musings just before the theme's final return), delivered with disarming simplicity and the subtlest dynamic gradation.
The final two movements are distinguished by the same virtues, benefiting greatly from the gains in clarity, even if at the opening of the Scherzo the strings can't help sounding undernourished for ears used to big, modern performances of the work. The clarinets, in particular, also sound slightly raw in the Scherzo's first lyrical episode, but this seems to add to the reading's character. Again, some might wish for more depth of sound in the arresting opening bars of the Finale but, for me, the gains far outweigh any perceived disadvantages and the whole movement comes across with great freshness, its profusion of dance-like rhythms very much to the fore. The final bars - with every detail of the score audible - are still just as thrilling.
The coupling, Schumann's Konzertstück for four horns, is less of a novelty in the period instrument stakes, most notably having already been recorded in an outstanding reading by John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Révolutionaire et Romantique some ten years ago on Archiv, which for me remains a slightly more compelling and exciting performance. However, despite a rather strange way with the figure at 1'05 in the finale, it here receives an excellent, lively and poetic reading from Krivine and the quartet of David Guerrier, Antoine Dreyfuss, Emmanuel Padieu, and Bernard Schirrer.
For the revelations in the Dvořák alone, though, this disc is worth its asking price.
By Hugo Shirley
UK Release Date: 28 August