The ninth symphony by Czech composer Antonín Dvořák was premiered at Carnegie Hall, New York on 16th December 1893 and was met with great applause. The work launched a new era of American music and remains one of the best-known and most-loved symphonies of all time.
Nicknamed the ‘New World Symphony’ from its title ‘From the New World’, this symphony was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and composed by Dvořák in the same city. It is in E minor and has four movements, of which the swelling melody of the second, Largo moment is the most recognisable. In 1922, Dvořák’s pupil William Arms Fisher adapted the main Largo theme into a spiritual-like song called ‘Goin’ Home’. The final movement features echoes of the motifs that occur in the previous movements.
In 1969, Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong took a tape recording of the New World Symphony on his historic trip to the Moon.
Why is it called the ‘New World Symphony’?
Dvořák named his ninth symphony ‘From the New World’ after his experience living in the USA in the 1890s. It also references the African-American spirituals and Native American music that inspired him while he travelled. While Dvořák did not explicitly use the melodies he admired in his own symphony, he sought to reproduce the spirit of the music he had heard.
What are the best recordings of Dvořák’s New World Symphony?
Berliner Philharmoniker/Rafael Kubelik Deutsche Grammophon 439 6632/447 4122 (1972)
‘Purists may object to Kubelík’s wayward handling of tempo’ says BBC Music Magazine reviewer Jan Smaczny, ‘but for me his judgement nearly always seems right… His way with the Eighth and Ninth symphonies is consistently affectionate and illuminating, while the BPO plays throughout with responsive enthusiasm.’
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Nicholas Harnoncourt Teldec 3984252542 (2000)
Jan Smaczny writes, ‘The hallmark of his readings is a scrupulous attention to detail that liberates these well-known works from anything that could be described as routine. His rendition of the New World is without question a revelation. Listeners and interpreters alike will benefit hugely from a pervasive unfussiness and respect for Dvořák’s orchestration that penetrates deep into the fabric of the work.’
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Mariss Jansons RCO Live 04002 (2004)
Jan Smaczny ranks this live performance highly in the catalogue of New World recordings: ‘The wind and string sections of the Concertgebouw in concert provide a wonderfully vibrant sound and nowhere is there a hint that familiarity has bred any sort of contempt. Jansons maximises dynamic contrast excitingly throughout and injects real epic sweep into the outer movements.’
We named the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra one of the best orchestras in the world.
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop Naxos 8.570714 (2008)
According to our reviewer Jan Smaczny, ‘The celebrated Largo is given one of the most perfectly shaped and unaffectedly straightforward performances I have heard: led by a magnificently vocal cor anglais solo, there is throughout an almost operatic sense of narrative. The scherzo is superbly infectious with some marvellously gritty string playing and, while certainly forceful, the performance never loses an essential dance-like quality.’
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Nelsons BRKlassik 900116 (2013)
Nelsons’s reading of the New World is ‘every bit as winning’ as the symphony’s other top recordings, says Jan Smaczny, demonstrating his ‘ability to look hard at familiar, highly-respected repertoire, and come up with novelty as well as integrity.’ He continues, ‘At every stage in this performance, the listener is compelled to reappraise a familiar masterpiece. All in all, this is a stunning interpretation with constantly rewarding orchestral playing, as well as excellent recorded sound’.
Bamberger Symphoniker/Jakub Hrůša Tudor 1744 (2018)
In his 5* review of this recording, Jan Smaczny writes, ‘those who have experienced Jakub Hrůša’s insightful and inspirational interpretations with the Philharmonia Orchestra will not be at all surprised at the high standards he has achieved thus far as chief conductor of the Bamberger Symphoniker. The orchestral playing is absolutely first-class, with really distinctive solo wind and brass playing matching the gorgeous Central European warmth of the strings, and Hrůša’s conception of the music is totally compelling.’
Experience more of his ‘insightful and inspiration interpretations’ for yourself: Hrůša conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a stunning Proms performance of Suk’s Prague on the cover CD for our July issue, out now!