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.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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 Jon 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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa