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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841–1904)
The Golden Spinning Wheel Op. 109 (1896) [27’50"]
The Wood Dove Op. 110 (1896) [20’49"]
The Noonday Witch Op. 108 (1896) [13’32"]
The Water Goblin Op. 107 (1896) [21’18"]
Berliner Philharmoniker/Simon Rattle.
recorded live, Philharmonie, Berlin, 4–7 March, 23–25 April 2004. DDD
EMI CLASSICS 558019-2 [48.47 + 34.58]

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Two discs for the price of one recorded by EMI with Simon Rattle before a pretty quiet audience in the Philharmonie. Unusually these works are here issued on two discs; all other versions of these tone poems issued together occupy a single disc with five or six minutes to spare. Rattle and the Berliners take nearly 84 minutes necessitating two discs.

These four tone poems are late Dvořák and so reflect the peak of his orchestral mastery. All four were inspired by some rather grim folk tales by Karel Jaromir Erben who was Archivist for the City of Prague. In addition to a small amount of original writing, Erben collected large numbers of Czech folk tales. By this time in his life, Dvořák had given up on writing strict classical works and was concentrating on freer forms such as opera and these poems.

Dvořák has often been criticised by various critics for taking these bloodthirsty little tales and producing washes of romantic playing which disguise the essential nastiness of the narrative. In these Berlin performances these softening characteristics are taken to absolute extremes. EMI have produced mightily impressive results that are rich and detailed. The warmly upholstered sound which Rattle encourages from his orchestra sounds to my ears, too rich for these pieces. Although reflecting their age, nearly all of the Supraphon alternatives have a much more folksy sound and a more appropriate style of playing and are to my ears are preferable to this newcomer. However, there are many enthusiasts who do not feel the way I do; for them this issue will be absolutely indispensable.

In other circles, the current playing of the Berlin Orchestra has been criticized as being bland and without character. I bet there are many orchestras around the world who would love to suffer from this problem. In fact, similar criticisms were laid at Claudio Abbado’s feet when he first took over the chief conductorship of the Berlin Phil, and these criticisms were largely silenced as their working relationship developed. I hope something similar develops with Simon Rattle, but we are certainly not there yet. This is bound to happen when many key players are replaced as has happened with Rattle, and as also happened with Abbado.

The Golden Spinning Wheel, the first tone poem in the set is a good example – Rattle takes 27’50" over it – compared to 26’11" with Rafael Kubelik on DG, 28’21" under Harnoncourt with the Royal Concertgebouw and 26’22" under Kertesz with the LSO. The big differences occur with the earlier Supraphon recordings: 20’32" under Chalabala or even 18’51" under Vaclav Talich. This means that parts of the newer performances sometimes sound sleepy, surely not a characteristic to be expected from the storyline. The tone poem is made to sound somewhat silly from the rumty-tum hell-for-leather last couple of minutes, which, taken out of context sounds incongruous.

So to sum up, we have here excellent modern performances recorded on the wing, in superb sound from Simon Rattle and his orchestra.

John Phillips


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