> Dvorak Tone Poems Talich [CH]: Classical Reviews- May 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
The Water Goblin, op. 107 (1)
The Noon Witch, op. 108 (2)
The Golden Spinning Wheel, op. 109 (3)
The Wild Dove, op. 110 (4).
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Václav Talich
Recorded at the Domovina Studio, Prague, 14th July 1949 (1),
The Dvořák Hall of Rudolfinum, Prague,

4th April 1951 (2), 20th March 1951 (3), 2nd and 3rd April 1951 (4)
SUPRAPHON 11 1900-2 001 [75’49"]
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This takes me back to my schooldays in the 1960s when Dvořák was a magic name to me and you could get shrill-sounding, scratchy Supraphon LPs in scrappy covers with hilariously translated sleeve-notes for 17 shillings and sixpence, usually in W. H. Smith’s. They opened up a world of romance, for their orchestras sang in a full-bodied way that ours seemed unable to and the music of Dvořák, Smetana and others exuded vitality and dance. But even in those days these Talich recordings of the Symphonic Poems had been replaced by new stereo recordings, and I remember looking sadly at old catalogues and fingering doubtfully the only discs obtainable which were conducted, not by then-Czechoslovakia’s greatest conductor but by somebody called Zdenĕk Chalabala who I’d never heard of. Then I consoled myself with the thought that he conducted them very well anyway, and later still I grew up and the music seemed as patchy as critics said it was, so perhaps it didn’t matter all that much. This is the first time I have been able to compare the two.

I now know, of course, that Moravian-born Zdenĕk Chalabala (1899-1962) was also a "historical" conductor, with a special insight into late Dvořák (his Rusalká is simply glorious). Basically the difference between the two is that Talich, while not a stranger to opera, was basically a symphonic conductor, while Chalabala held opera appointments all through his career and, apart from the Dvořák Symphonic Poems, his recordings were almost all of opera. In The Water Goblin Talich succeeds in giving the music organic growth; each new episode seems a consequence of what had come before, and Dvořák’s structure seems clearer than usual. Chalabala, the opera man, is more concerned with telling a tale. After the perky opening, he lets the tempo slacken during the chorale-like theme and by the time the murky description of the Goblin’s underwater kingdom arrives he has settled into a different tempo. This is fine so long as Dvořák’s own structure is clear, but later he has me fidgeting at the corners where Talich propels the argument forward. This 1949 recording sounds hoarse and shallow; the others, from only two years later, wear their years lightly. They are not very analytical in the heavier passages, but they do fair justice to Dvořák’s remarkable range of colour.

Oddly enough, in The Noon Witch comparisons go the other way. For the first three-quarters of the piece Dvořăk’s construction is concise and clear, but the material itself seems less inspired. Then, in the last part the musical discourse is so ramshackle that not even Talich can convince us otherwise. Truth to tell he sounds less engaged by the piece. Here Chalabala, by characterising more vividly the individual moments, makes them sound more musically inspired, and perhaps convinces us that the lack of symphonic construction in the last bars does not matter so much.

Honours seem even for The Golden Spinning Wheel. Talich is alive to both the ravishing sonorities (example 1, from 2’03") and the vitality of the writing (example 2, from 17’ 15"), but Chalabala also has much in his favour. Near the beginning where, after the opening horn calls, a lyrical fragment appears on the strings, Chalabala is concerned to express here a glimpse of lyrical ardour, while Talich wants us to notice the cross-rhythms it makes with the staccato motive in the lower strings. The story-teller versus the symphonic conductor.

The Wild Dove is the one masterpiece of these Symphonic Poems, its construction clear, free of longueurs and concluding with a memorable excursion into the future world of Janáček. Only the mournful subject matter makes it unlikely to match the popularity of Dvořák’s most famous pieces. Here Talich conducts with the sweep and, in the central section, the incandescence that unmistakably reveal a great conductor at work (example 3: from 9’55"). Particularly in the dance section the gentler Chalabala can seem homespun, but he scores on some details and his final section is more effectively pervaded by the colouring of the Dove’s mournful song. The symphonic Talich seems not to want to have much truck with this merely colouristic device. But rather than pit one against the other, I would say it is rather like hearing the same Elgar work under Boult and Barbirolli. Each has his special qualities. We are fortunate that two of the great Czech "historical" conductors have left such fine recordings of these works.

Another "historical" Czech conductor, of course, was Rafael Kubelík, whose recordings are in more up-to-date sound. If you are not so much drawn by the historical aspect you will probably not go for either of the two under comparison here but for Kubelík, Kertesz or Järvi. What none of these versions can re-create is the particular sound of the Czech PO in those days, based on vibrant strings and piquant wind.

The booklet notes begin with a promising piece of Supraphon English but are thereafter fairly well translated and much more informative than those that accompanied the old Chalabala LPs.

Christopher Howell

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