Dvorak: Tone Poems (CD review)

Sir Simon Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. EMI 7243 5 58019-2 (2-disc set).

There hasn't been a really good set in quite some time of Dvorak's four tone poems of 1896. The best ones appeared ages ago from Kertesz and the LSO (Decca), Kubelik the Bavarian RSO (DG), and Harnoncout and the Concertgebouw O. (Warner Classics). So it's good to have so refined and polished as set as this one from Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic from 2005.

The tone poems I'm referring to are The Golden Spinning Wheel, The Wood Dove, The Noonday Witch, and The Water Goblin. Dvorak wrote them toward the end of his career, after he'd made his mark with the nine symphonies and the Cello Concerto and what have you. He wanted to do something uniquely Czech, returning to Prague to compose these orchestral ballads based on folk songs collected by Prague archivist Karel Jaromir Erben. They are typical folk stories, very lurid and grisly as so many folk stories are. They mostly have to do with monsters eating people--young heroines and children--or in the case of The Wood Dove, a bird driving a woman to suicide. Yes, they're rather merciless, but think even of a child's fairy tale like "Hansel and Gretel" and you get the idea. No need for political correctness here nor any apologies.

Rattle and his players handle the pieces in exemplary fashion, with plenty of color and atmosphere. If anything, though, his treatments may be a too sophisticated, too cultured, to capture fully the horrifying aspects of these tales. A quick listen to Kertesz, for example, reveals interpretations less subtle, less delicate, but more boisterous and more robust. This is to take nothing away from Rattle; his just seems to take a more urbane approach to such folky tunes.

The real advantage of the new EMI set is the sound. What a pleasure it is to listen to the Berlin Philharmonic without an audience coughing, wheezing, and shuffling in the background. For most of the tenures of Claudio Abbado and Rattle they and their record companies have insisted upon recording almost everything with the BPO live, perhaps providing more spontaneous performances but compromising the sound. This time out, the orchestra was less distant and a whole lot fuller sounding. By comparison, the old Kertesz-Decca recordings, while still good, are brighter, harder, and more forward, with less mid bass response. The Rattle-EMI recordings are smoother overall, perhaps a touch too soft, and much better balanced tonally, with a sturdy if sometimes overly prominent mid bass.

The only serious complaint I would make is that the two discs in the Rattle set contain a total of about eighty-three minutes of music: forty-eight minutes on disc one and about thirty-five minutes on disc two. It is short measure, hardly more than one finds on a single disc these days.  Oh, well....

JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa