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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841 - 1904)
Piano Concerto in G minor, op. 33 (1876) [39:19]
The Golden Spinning Wheel, op. 109 (1896) [28:21]
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
rec. Het Concertgebouw, 20-26 October 2001; Piano Concerto recorded live. DDD
WARNER CLASSICS LC 04281 8573876302 [67:52]

There’s taut, crisp, elegant, controlled playing on this fine modern recording of some of Dvořák's lesser-known works. The disc also benefits from the immediacy of live performance in the case of the piano concerto. In view of the live recording, the quality of the disc is exceptional. Aimard is lyrical as the piano soloist, especially in the beautiful section opening the second movement, a delicate contrast to the majestic first movement.
The symphonic poem, 'The Golden Spinning Wheel, a late work composed after Dvořák's return from the USA, is very nationalistically Czech. It follows its folk-tale source in Brothers Grimm style especially closely even for a symphonic poem. The work is reminiscent of Janáček or Smetana in this regard, rather than Brahms, with whom Dvořák is more frequently compared, and from whose writing the piano concerto clearly takes some reference. It is well played and recorded, although the music varies from melodic and rather simplistic to bombastic.
In the concerto, the sound-world sits almost half way between the romantic but lush Liszt and the more disciplined and Germanic Brahms. The piano part is also less coloratura than the former. Its more restrained nature is understood more easily if one remembers that Dvořák was not a solo concert pianist writing for his own instrument but rather someone who would take a piano part in chamber music. The balance between the piano and orchestra is closer to that between piano and chamber ensemble. Whilst quite interesting this approach perhaps has the drawback of not showing Aimard's very considerable talents to their full extent.
This recording of lesser-known works is interesting for putting Dvořák firmly into the Slavonic musical tradition, and hence  provides a fresh insight into his composition. Undoubtedly, these are strong performances by world-class players with excellent modern technology used to create the disc. However, there are times when one cannot help but think that there are good reasons why lesser-known works are less-known. Dvořák has written better stuff than this - that is why it is better known. Wider airing of his lesser works may not in fact enhance his reputation as a composer, even perhaps the opposite.
I am going to make a slight grumble about the accompanying materials. Whilst reasonably informative notes about the works are translated into English, French and German, no notes or information are give about the performers. Whilst they may perhaps be considered too well known to require any further introduction, this is a slightly arrogant assumption. Some comment about their interest in or connection with these particular works would be of interest to any reader, even one who is well acquainted with the current classical music scene.
Those interested in the symphonic poems, perhaps as part of a wider Slavonic musical tradition, might want the 2-CD set by the same orchestra and conductor which presents all four together (Warner Classics 2564 60221-2). There is also a set recorded by the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle on EMI Classics (5580192 - see review).
Dvořák enthusiasts may find the Dutch performance although good to be rather tight and excessively controlled and may prefer Slavonic performances, such as the Czech Philharmonic/Libor Pesek, available at a good price from Virgin Classics (VB 5618532), giving all of the symphonies and some of the tone poems on eight discs. Their recording might be argued to have more heart, although less precision in both playing and engineering. There is also a 2005 release of a 1950 recording by the same orchestra, this time under Vaclav Talich, which combines the piano concerto with  Frantisek Maxian with the cello concerto with Rostropovich on Supraphon (SU38252), an appealing mid-price selection.
Completists or serious enthusiasts of the composer who enjoy this performance might like to know that it is also available as part of a set of complete Dvořák concertos released by Warner in 2004 for the composer's centenary, 2564615282 (see review). There it is accompanied by some very fine performances from world-class musicians. In view of this and its coverage it is a bargain. Personally I would prefer to obtain the Warner boxed set of the concertos, and should I wish a recording of the tone poems, which are less to my personal taste, then I would go for the Harnoncourt’s 2CD Warner Classics set in preference to the slightly incongruous pairing of this disc.
Aimard fans may want this disc for the sake of completeness, but may otherwise prefer to obtain recordings which provide a better showcase for his talents. Although he is a soloist I always enjoy, and particularly in live performance, he is at his best in French and Hungarian music most especially in his distinguished interpretations of Ligeti and of Messiaen (the husband of his teacher). The recording of his Carnegie Hall recital (Teldec 0927430882) remains an excellent showcase of what he does best. This disc, although well played, cannot ever gain that particular distinction.
Julie Williams


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