Dvorak: Rhapsodies (CD review)

Rhapsody in A minor; Slavonic Rhapsodies. Tomas Brauner, Pilsen Philharmonic. ArcoDiva UP 0171-2 031.

Pilsen is one of the biggest cities in the Czech Republic. The Pilsen Philharmonic, which traces its origins to the nineteenth century, is one of the oldest orchestras in the Czech Republic. Maestro Tomas Brauner, one of the world's foremost young conductors, was born in Prague, Czech Republic. I mention all of this because the subjects of the present album are the orchestral rhapsodies of Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904), probably the most famous Czech composer of all time. What could be more appropriate than a Czech orchestra and a Czech conductor recording Czech music in a Czech studio?

Dvorak was proudly nationalistic, often using Czech folk influences in his music, particularly in matters of rhythm. Certainly, the composer's style appears no more explicitly than in his rhapsodies, for which Maestro Brauner seems to have a strong affinity. And, I might add, the Pilsen Philharmonic follow his lead commendably. It appears that not only does the city of Pilsen make a celebrated Pilsner beer, they have a fine orchestra, too.

Now, to the music at hand: The Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music, the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, and Wikipedia all agree that a rhapsody is a single-movement, instrumental composition irregular in form, episodic yet integrated and suggestive of improvisation or spontaneity. A rhapsody generally appears as a free-flowing work that uses a range of moods, colors, and tones to evoke a feeling of epic, heroic, or national character. Dvorak wrote four of them.

Brauner presents the rhapsodies in their order of composition, starting with the Rhapsody in A minor, Op. 14, B44, written in 1874. According to a booklet note, it was the tone poem meditations of Franz Liszt that most influenced Dvorak to write the piece, combining the dramatic, melodic ideas of his homeland with the tone painting of Liszt. He even called it a "Symphonic Poem in A minor." However, the composer did not feel the work worthy of performance, so it was not until he died that the public finally heard it.

The Rhapsody itself sounds a bit disconnected at times, which may be part of the reason Dvorak refused to allow performances of it. Despite this tendency, however, the work also displays an abundance of attractive melodies, maybe too many, all of them affectionately presented by Maestro Brauner, who does his best to make the contrasting elements come together.

Tomas Brauner
It would be another four years before Dvorak returned to the idea of composing an orchestral rhapsody with his three Slavonic Rhapsodies, Op. 45, and with these he seemed a little happier. I enjoyed the first of these three rhapsodies best of all for its peaceful, idealized, and clearly Romantic attributes. Not that Maestro Brauner doesn't play up the dramatic effects when they arise, but it's clearly the pastoral element of the music that I found most appealing. Or maybe it's because the music reminded me a lot of Smetana's "Moldau," I'm not sure. In any case, Brauner applies a sweet, light touch to the score, and the result is quite charming.

Rhapsodies 2 and 3 are more theatrical, more striking musically, especially No. 2, than No. 1, with No. 3 being a sort of cross between the first two and sounding more than ever like Smetana. Whatever, I appreciated Brauner's rhythmic yet highly lyrical approach to the music. It may be relatively lightweight material, but Brauner makes it a worthwhile listen.

Recording director Sylva Stejskalova and engineers Vaclav Roubal and Karel Soukenik made the album at the studio of the Czech Radio Pilsen in 2013. There is a moderate degree of room ambience present, a resonance that enhances the believability of the sound. There is also a fair degree of transparency, air, space, depth, and solid deep bass involved. However, a frequency response that tends slightly to favor the upper midrange somewhat offsets these otherwise excellent qualities, making the sonics a tad top-heavy. Nevertheless, it's good sound overall, clean, clear, and reasonably natural.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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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