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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Symphonic Poems
The Golden Spinning Wheel B. 197, Op. 109 (1896)* [28:24]
The Noon Witch B. 196, Op. 108 (1896)* [14:17]
The Water Goblin B. 195, Op. 107 (1896) [21:20]
The Wild Dove B. 198, Op. 110 (1896) [19:56]
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
rec. Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, Holland, 24-26 October 2001 (Op. 109), December 1998 (Op. 108), October 1999 (Op. 107), December 1997 (Op. 110) Live recording* DDD
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 60221-2 [42:44 + 41:03]

Warner Classics have delved into their cavernous back catalogue to assemble this double set of Dvořák’s four great symphonic poems from 1896. On the first of these parsimoniously filled discs The Golden Spinning Wheel and The Noon Witch are heard in live performances. The remaining two scores are studio recordings. Sadly a fifth symphonic poem A Hero’s Song B.199, Op. 111 (1897) was not recorded by Harnoncourt and is not included although there is more than enough space to accommodate it.
 
In the mid-late 19th century many composers began setting music inspired by literary subjects. This genre where a composer would use a poem or story to provide descriptive programmes for their orchestral music became known as the symphonic poem or tone poem. It became the domain of the ‘New German School’ centred around Liszt, Wagner and Strauss.
 
The symphonic poems form Dvořák’s last major body of orchestral music. They were written after his return to Prague following the composition of his New World Symphony in America. The symphonic poems are orchestral descriptions of the collection of folk ballads entitled Kytice (A Bouquet of National Ballads) from Karel Jaromír Erben (1811-1870) the Czech poet who hold an iconic position in 19th century Czech literature. Erben’s stories were remarkably blood-curdling affairs and the gruesome subjects created ripples of unease amongst the sensitive urban public. In The Noon Witch a mother threatens her whining child with the noon witch then suffocates the child. In The Water Goblin the creature abducts a young girl and fathers a child with her whom he decapitates. A peasant girl in The Golden Spinning Wheel is killed and mutilated by her step-mother and step-sister. In The Wild Dove a young wife poisons her husband and subsequently drowns herself.
 
It is hard to find fault with the performances. The Concertgebouw’s playing is quite superb throughout, from fast moving tempos to the reflection of swiftly changing complex emotions. Saturated with colour and infused with energy, from the first bar to the last, Harnoncourt’s readings avoid overcrowding the orchestral climaxes and provide a showcase for open-hearted and spontaneous playing from the Amsterdam players. In The Golden Spinning Wheel the ‘love music’ of the King and the peasant girl is movingly portrayed and Harnoncourt provides great rejoicing in the closing pages where the King takes the peasant girl back to his castle. I enjoyed the exciting and colourful playing in the vivacious opening section of The Water Goblin describing the evil creature singing about his wedding. The allegro vivace which portrays the storm on the lake is vividly interpreted. In The Noon Witch one can almost imagine the disturbing scene of the mother clutching her child to her breast for protection and frantically struggling with the witch. To conclude Harnoncourt obtains exciting orchestral power from the orchestra vividly portraying the witch proclaiming victory. In The Wild Dove I especially liked the way that Harnoncourt draws such beautiful and expressive playing in the opening funeral march. In the andante section where the woman tragically drowns herself the poignancy of this interpretation is highly impressive.
 
The Warner recording engineers provide fine sound throughout this mix of live and studio events. The concise booklet notes are pleasantly informative adding to the success of the presentation. From my collection I remain impressed with the complete accounts of these Dvořák symphonic poems from the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra under Václav Talich on EMI 5754832, the Scottish National Orchestra under Neeme Järvi on Chandos 8798 and also from the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra under Zdeněk Chalabala on Supraphon 3056.
 
Harnoncourt and his Concertgebouw Orchestra are on top form. Buyers should not hesitate with this Warner Classics release.
 
Michael Cookson
 

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