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Antonin DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Symphony No.7 in D minor, Op.70 (1885) [38:48]
The Wild Dove (1896) [19:46]
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
rec. Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, March 1998 ‘live’ (symphony), Dec 1997
WARNER CLASSICS 3984 21278-2 [58:49]


Given the severe competition and overcrowded marketplace where Dvořák symphonies are concerned, the reappearance of Harnoncourt’s Concertgebouw recordings at budget price immediately makes them more competitive. This superbly played Seventh has a lot going for it, though I didn’t find it any more persuasive than my two long-standing library versions, Colin Davis with this very orchestra, recorded by Philips in 1975, and Christoph Dohnanyi with his crack Cleveland Orchestra from the 1980s.

Dvořák’s most dramatic symphony needs to have, above all in the first movement, a feeling of tension and urgency. Harnoncourt’s opening strikes me as too slack and tentative, though it does improve as things unfold. Davis gets it just about right, with a slightly brisker tempo and feeling of simmering drama. The playing is just as fine – probably a lot of the same players – and the recording does not betray its age one jot. Harnoncourt is impressive in the great adagio, where his famous ear for detail pays dividends with the glorious horn and woodwind passages from 2’32 onwards. He doesn’t make as much as Dohnanyi of the famous Tristan reference at 5’37, though that is typical of Harnoncourt and is not a downside. He keeps things flowing quite naturally and overall this movement is a success, if not quite as warm as Davis.

The liner note, in the form of an interview with the conductor, mentions the scherzo specifically, with Harnoncourt saying ‘At the start of the scherzo I always go weak at the knees ... you’re aware of a sense of national identity in this music’. Not surprisingly, this movement is a great success, with razor-sharp accents and a wonderful feeling of rhythmic buoyancy. The finale comes off well enough, though once again I had a nagging doubt about the all-important atmosphere which Davis manages to convey so effectively, though the energy and octane level improves as the movement progresses. The recording is splendidly full and resonant, with every detail registering.

One of the best aspects of these Harnoncourt Dvořák discs has been the inclusion of the late symphonic poems, major works all of them. The Wild Dove, like the others, is based on a gruesome folk ballad by Erben and Dvořák, clearly with the examples of Liszt, Smetana and Strauss in mind, is suitable inspired. The orchestration is masterly (listen to the cascading strings at 5’32) ant the thematic development brilliantly conveys a sense of the narrative. You may also hear Berlioz at 8’10 (shades of the Le Corsaire ) but ultimately you’re never in doubt that this is the Czech master fully engaged with his nationalistic material. Perhaps it’s because I’m less familiar with the piece, but Harnoncourt struck me as quite inspired here, with his typically probing sense of re-discovery bringing the teeming details to life without losing sense of the symphonic line.

So, a successful performance of The Wild Dove and a relatively ordinary one of the symphony which, given the short-ish playing time, makes it hard to completely recommend. Things are further clouded by the fact that all the symphonic poems are themselves now neatly re-packaged on to a budget double-disc set, available online for as little as Ł7.00. For the record, Davis and Dohnanyi are also on budget doubles, both with Symphonies 8 and 9, but Davis offering the marvellous and under-rated Symphonic Variations as extra incentive, while Dohnanyi includes the shorter Scherzo Capriccioso, so both are outstanding, well-filled bargains.

Tony Haywood


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