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Antonin DVORÁK (1841-1904) Complete Symphonic Poems:- Overture: My Home; The Water Goblin; The Golden Spinning Wheel; The Noon Witch; The Wood Dove; The Hero's Song. Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi 2 CDs - CHANDOS CHAN 241-3 [111:11]




Dvorák's symphonic poems were written late in life. Presented here, the two non-programatic works: My Home and The Hero's Song bracket the four tone poems that are from the macabre poetry of Karl Jaromir Erben published as The Garland in 1853.

Dvorák included the opening work My Home in an 1894 concert that premiered his Symphony From the New World (and he had previously conducted the Overture in America.) It is a lively piece, with plenty of nationalistic fervour, based on a tune by Frantisek Skroup entitled 'My Home' and a Czech folk-song 'In the Farmyard'.

Dvorák had been attracted to the poetry of Erben for many years but it was not until all the Symphonies and all the other orchestral works for which he is principally known were behind him, that he wrote this series of four colourful orchestral ballads. In each case, Dvorák followed the narrative and allowed the stories to dictate the shape of his music. The melodic line is strongest in The Golden Spinning Wheel but throughout all of these symphonic poems, the characterisation, atmosphere and narrative writing is of a very high order. Neeme Järvi and the Royal Scottish Natioanl Orchesta deliver spellbinding performances.

The Water Goblin is seen in the opening bars 'sitting on a poplar branch by the edge of the lake in pale moonlight'. Dvorák's colouration, at first, is restricted to the innocence of brighter woodwind and high strings but soon darker hues creep in and we are aware that the Goblin has a malevolent streak. The scene changes to a house nearby where the daughter stubornly and against her mother's wishes, wants to go to the lake to wash her clothes. In the middle of this chore a plank beneath the girl splinters sending her to the bottom of the lake where the Goblin claims her and makes her his wretched wife. Her only consolation is their half-goblin baby. The girl begs to be released to see her mother. The Water Goblin grants her wish but tells her she must return before the eveneing bells ring. In a lento assai episode, the daughter, heavy-hearted, on trombones and cellos, is reunited with her mother, querulous on the flute. However a storm arises on the lake and the Water Goblin reappears. Wind and water rage in angry chromatic gusts - and worse, the evening bells begin to toll. The Goblin's three-note rhythm is hammered out furiously in three vicious chords as the Goblin throws the decapitated body of the baby against the door. Unlike the Erben poem, Dvorák's ballad ends compassionately as he commiserates with the mother and daughter while the Water Goblin myseriously disappears in the lake.

The Golden Spinning Wheel opens with a horn fanfare (nicely distanced) over insistent galloping triplet rhythms as the King rides in the forest where he meets the peasant girl, Dornicka, who interrupts her spinning to give him a drink of water. Of course they fall in love to one of Dvorák's captivating romantic melodies. Later the King returns to instruct Dornicka's stepmother to take her to his castle but the stepmother who is represented by a sinister variation of the King's horseback theme has other ideas. She and her own daughter, in a grisly scherzo, kill Dornicka and make off to the Castle taking with them Dornicka's feet, hands and eyes. The King accepts the daughter as Dornicka and they celebrate their wedding with a polka based on his horseback theme. After a passionate love scene, the King goes off to the wars to the distant sound of military music. Later, a mysterious old man discovers the remains of Dornicka's body. He sends a boy on three separate errands to persude the false Queen to part with Dornicka's feet in return for a golden spinning wheel, then her hands for a golden distaff, and finally her eyes for a golden spindle. He then restores the missing parts to Dornicka's body and she returns to life to a tender violin melody. When the King returns, the false Queen is exposed as the golden spinning wheel sings of the Queen's and her mother's evil treachery. All ends happily when the King and Dornicka are reunited to passionate, rapturous music

The Noon Witch is shorter and more compact than the others. A harrassed mother threatens her young child (clarinet theme) with the Noon Witch when she is irritated by the toy cockerel he is playing with (oboe). When he persists she becomes exasperated and the Noon Witch, a familiar scary figure in Bohemian folklore, actually appears (an ominous entry on bass clarinet). "Give me your child," she demands but the mother thoroughly alarmed runs off clutching her little child. The Witch pursues them. The Witch's motif develops into a wild frenzied dance as the mother screams and collapses. In the next episode the father returns home to find, to his horror, his wife unconscious and the child lying dead beneath her as the music breaks into a passionate expression of his anguish.

The Wood Dove opens with a muted funeral procession, and flutes and violins introduce the pretty young widow who initially seems appropriately demure. However soon oboe, trumpet flutes and violins (in a particularly scathing expression) tell us that the young lady is not that grief-stricken and will soon be comforted. A handsome young man appears and it is not long before they are wed. The central section of the tone poem celebrates their wedding with a typical Dvorák C major scherzo with a more relaxed trio. Later, from an oak tree that has grown over the first husband's grave, a wood dove sings mournfully - an eerie combination of rustling harp and strings, warbling tremolando flutes and a plangent oboe. A shocked clarinet call signals the widow's guilt (she had poisoned her first husband). In her emorse she drowns herself. Though Erben has no pity for her, Dvorák compassionately forgives her by recalling the song of the wood dove as the work closes.

The Hero's Song was the last orchestral work that Dvorák composed. It has no specific programme but we may deduce that it is about a hero who surmounts an early trauma and goes from strength to strength and from victory to triumph. The music is more appealing in its quieter folk-material-inspired stretches rather than for its bombast.

The documentation for the album is excellent. Gerald Larner's exemplary notes, from which I have liberally quoted, are learned yet very readable.


Ian Lace


Ian Lace

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