Dvorak: Symphonic Poems (CD review)

Vaclav Neumann, Walter Weller, David Zinman; SWR Symphony Orchestra. Arte Nova Classics ANO 277760.

Toward the end of his career, after he’d made his mark with nine symphonies, Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) turned his attention to things uniquely Czech, returning to Prague to compose a series of orchestral ballads, symphonic poems, three of them here based on folk songs collected by Prague archivist Karel Jaromir Erben. They are typical fairy-tale stories, often lurid and grisly, as so many folk stories can be, mostly about monsters eating people. The other tone poem on the album is quite different and concludes the program on a distinctly more upbeat note. Arte Nova pulled all four works from their back catalogue and offer them together on this single collection.

Things begin with The Water Goblin, 1896, performed by Vaclav Neumann and the SWR Symphony Orchestra. This wonderfully macabre little story tells of a water sprite who metes out his anger in retaliation for a reputed wrong done him years before. Neumann could be a most refined if somewhat restrained conductor most of the time, but in the first two of these tone poems, he is quite animated. What Neumann’s rendition slightly lacks is a sense of dread, suspense, or fear, replaced by excitement and thrills.

Next comes The Noon Witch, 1896, with Neumann again leading the orchestra. This is an even more frightful story than The Water Goblin, wherein a limping demon carries off naughty children at midday. Here, Neumann’s sense of adventure works a little better than it did in The Water Goblin, and he conjures up a pretty creepy characterization of the ogre. He also creates some extreme moments of quiet to set off the spookier moods of the music.

With The Wood Dove, also from 1896, Walter Weller takes over the conducting duties. This time the narrative is a bit more subtle than the outright monsters of the first two tales, and Weller builds the tension nicely. The plot involves a tree growing out of the grave of a man poisoned by his wife. A wood dove cooing in the tree so upsets the guilt-stricken widow, who has by now remarried, that she eventually commits suicide. The grimness of the story is more about atmosphere than outright shocks, and that is what Weller gives us, a colorfully chilling account.

The fourth and final work on the disc, In Nature’s Realm from 1891, is one Dvorak wrote several years earlier than the preceding ones. Unlike the dark fairy-tale imagery of the first three symphonic poems, this one has a pastoral setting, emphasizing what the composer saw as “a peaceful state of harmony in Nature.” David Zinman conducts the SWR Symphony in what seems to me the most-successful, most-comprehensive reading on the program, providing beauty, poetry, and power aplenty.

For anyone who doesn’t already own these pieces or for those who do but enjoy them so much they’d like to hear additional interpretations, the compilation offers a good, low-cost alternative to several other pricier collections. However, I have to admit that I still prefer Harnoncourt (Teldec or Warner Classics), Kertesz (Decca), and Kubelik (DG) in this repertoire, even if they do cost a little more.

Arte Nova made the recordings between 1986 and 1988 at the SWR Hans-Rosbaud-Studio, Germany. The sound is rather one-dimensional, not too wide nor too deep, but compensating in part for this lack of dimensionality we find a reasonably balanced frequency response, if a tad thin at the bottom end. There is a small degree of hard edge to the sonics as well, which at least has the advantage of imparting a greater clarity to the midrange. In all, the disc offers good middle-of-the-road sound, with a pleasant high-end extension.

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.

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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