Dvorak: Overtures (SACD review)

Jakub Hrusa, PKF-Prague Philharmonia. Pentatone PTC 5186 532.

Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) was a Czech composer. The PKF-Prague Philharmonia is a Czech orchestra. Jakub Hrusa is a Czech conductor. Pentatone recorded the music on the present disc in SACD multichannel and regular stereo. All well and good, and together they would seem to be a perfect match of music, orchestra, conductor, and sound.


Let's start with the music. The disc under review contains five of Dvorak's overtures, which are really not so much overtures as they are small symphonic poems. These five include In Nature's Realm, the Carnival Overture, and the Othello Overture, all three comprising a trilogy Dvorak called "Nature, Life and Love," which he originally intended be played as a single unit. In addition, we have My Home and the Hussite Overture.

The thing is, however, Dvorak wrote thirteen such overtures or tone poems, and here we get only five of them. The ones I tend to like best are those with a more-sinister tone, the ones dealing with old folk stories and children's tales. Things like The Noon Witch, The Water Goblin, The Wild Dove (also known as The Wood Dove), and The Golden Spinning Wheel. For those, however, you'll have to look elsewhere. The ones we get from Hrusa are for the most part the tamer, calmer pieces. Which is perhaps a part of the problem because Maestro Hrusa doesn't do a whole lot to make them any more interesting with his rather tame, subdued approach. Nor does a rather tame, subdued recording help much.

For more energetic, colorful, and characterful presentations of Dvorak's tone poems, I suggest that listeners might audition the recordings by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Concertgebouw Orchestra on Warner Classics, Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic on EMI or Warner Classics, Istvan Kertesz and the London Symphony Orchestra on Decca, or Rafael Kubelik and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra on DG. Not that there is anything manifestly wrong with Hrusa's performances, but the aforementioned conductors bring an extra degree of life to Dvorak's music.

Jakub Hrusa
Anyway, In Nature's Realm finds us in a pastoral setting, emphasizing what the composer saw as "a peaceful state of harmony in Nature." Hrusa's vision of it bucolic, indeed, with most of it laid-back and serene, even during the most-intense moments. Then, too, the Prague orchestra plays effortlessly
for him, further heightening the music's rustic charm. For me, while the interpretation lacked the ultimate in musical delineation, it was the best thing on the program.

In the Carnival Overture Dvorak meant to represent the revelry of the carnival season before Lent, with its crowds of merrymakers and its bustle of excitement. Hrusa opens the work in high good spirits and then keeps it going most of the way with a well-judged lyrical energy. Toward the middle, though, he seems to abandon the sprightliness of the earlier sections before returning to the vigor of the opening.

The Othello Overture takes its inspiration from Shakespeare's tragic play, and the music is just that: theatrical, doleful, melancholy, and expressive. Hrusa points up the sorrowful angle pretty well but never appears to connect on the purely demonstrative level of the Bard's words. Again, one finds the dramatic contrasts less sharp, less marked than one might want. It's all a tad too mild, maybe too polished, for the emotional charge needed.

My Home, commissioned as the prelude to a play that has since fallen by the wayside, lives on as a lilting, often patriotic stand-alone piece. Hrusa navigates the quieter passages in lovely fashion and generates a modest amount of tension as the music picks up steam. Nevertheless, it doesn't quite have one standing up and cheering.

Finally, Dvorak based the Hussite Overture on the story of Jan Hus, burned at the stake as a heretic in 1415, an incident that spurred his followers into conflict with the Catholic Church, which eventually conceded to the Czechs the right to adopt some of Hus's teachings in their religious practices. The music uses some traditional Czech liturgical songs, and it sounds largely dark and stern. By this time in the album, I was getting used to Hrusa's conservative approach to matters, so everything seemed about right to me in the dark and stern departments. I just never found anything very interesting, animating, or stimulating about it.

Pentatone enclose the disc case in a light-cardboard slipcover, so you know it's a prestige product. I'm sure there are practical reasons for so many CD's, DVD's, and Blu-rays coming in slipcovers, but I've never figured them out. I guess for protection, or mostly for appearance? I almost always wind up throwing the slipcover away.

Producer Job Maarse and engineers Erdo Groot and Roger de Schot recorded the overtures at the Forum Karlin, Prague, Czech Republic, in January 2015. They created it for SACD two-channel and multichannel formats for playback on SACD players and for regular two-channel stereo playback on any standard CD player. I listened in the two-track SACD format using a Sony SACD player.

There is a pleasant ambient glow from the hall that the engineers captured well. The miking appears moderately distanced compared to a lot of today's recordings, so expect a slightly softer, rounder, smoother sound than you may care for, with a bit narrower stereo spread than usual. Otherwise, like the performances, the sound appears somewhat restrained, with decent but not exceptional dynamics and frequency range. Let's say it's fairly natural, easy listening sound, just the kind that complements the more relaxed items on the agenda.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow:

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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