Monday, 9 April 2012

From Bohemia's woods and fields

For a composer so widely known as Dvorak, it's surprisingly how unfamiliar much of his extensive output is. Even a work as fresh and likeable as the Symphony No.5 in F major, Op.76 is something of a rarity these days in concert halls and on the airwaves. 

This symphony has one of the most magical openings of any symphony. The first movement gets under way with the orchestra imitating the sound of Czech bagpipes - two clarinets playing the folk-like, triad-based tune, supported by horns and low strings. Violins enter like a warm breeze then shimmer away while flutes take over the tune. It creates an idyllic pastoral vision. Into it, wearing sturdy boots, strides a bold, dancing tune with something of the character of one of the composer's robust Slavonic Dances. With this theme Dvorak builds a satisfying transition to the second subject, which is a lyrical, rather Schumann-like string melody. This new theme then alternates with loveable tripping scale figures on woodwinds and dramatic chords before the exposition ends in a romantic glow. The development section doesn't seem to me to dip in quality. Its Schubert-like use of beautiful modulations to bear the main subject on a glowing journey is attractive, as are the many new colours that bring fresh magic to this section. An extra-special moment comes when the horns initiate the recapitulation above pulsing woodwinds and warm strings and restore the Idyllic. The climax that crowns the recapitulation is also superb.

The two central movements are somewhat lighter. The Andante is chiefly concerned with the singing of its wistful main melody - a gentle, romantic theme to which Dvorak keeps bringing fresh harmonies and changing colours. Winds and pizzicato strings start the charming, smiling middle section, whose tune is a variant of the main theme. The reprise of the first section is brought to an impressive climax. A bridge passage then carries us into...

...the thoroughly enjoyable and light-spirited Scherzo - a colourful and lively Slavonic dance with a romantic climax. The Trio section is a Schumann-like exchange between winds and strings. 

The fine sonata-form Finale is where most of the really serious business of the symphony is done. It largely forsakes the pastoral for the dramatic. The main theme strides in sternly and purposefully and begins to shape the movement. A strange and fascinating tolling passage and a lyrical second subject provide points of contrast but it is the motifs drawn from the main theme - both melodic and rhythmic - that power most of the action. The development section creates a tense atmosphere before a tragic climax brings us to the point of recapitulation. The ending, however, is a mellow sunset followed by a heroic sprint to the finish. 

I vote for more outings for this symphony!

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