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.