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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Piano Concerto in G minor, Op.33 (1876)
The Golden Spinning Wheel, Op.109 (1896)
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Recorded at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, 20-26 October 2001
TELDEC 8573 87630-2 [67’52]


Dvořák’s Piano Concerto has always been considered a poor relation to his two most famous concertos, those for violin and cello (the last being by far the most popular). Its ‘Cinderella’ reputation has not been helped by the fact that no really major pianist has championed the work in the concert hall, and the fact that most general music guides dismiss the piece as second-rate. One very popular dictionary (which shall be nameless) refers to it simply as ‘…a Beethoven-ish hybrid that never really gets off the ground’. Well, the author there ought to have been able to hear this thrilling new recording, which may just have changed that view.

As keen collectors will know, it has had a couple of distinctive interpretations on disc, the most well-known being that of Sviatoslav Richter and Carlos Kleiber from 1977, last heard of on mid-price EMI. Even with such distinctive personalities at work (too distinctive?) the disc failed to get the concerto into the mainstream. This new Teldec performance has exactly the right qualities to do just that. It has bags of charisma, the sort of freshness and lack of sentimentality we associate with these artists, and superlative playing from all concerned.

Actually, one can see where the faults in the piece lie. The first movement is way too long for its material, and the ghosts of Beethoven (particularly the Emperor) and Brahms loom pretty large in places. But this is Dvořák, and we do get swept along by the good-natured lyricism and innocent infectiousness of the music. Harnoncourt’s approach pays dividends here; his no-nonsense tempo, sharply defined rhythms and crisp ensemble articulation are just what are needed to dispel any doubts about quality. Aimard agrees wholeheartedly, and clearly relishes making something of the romantic rhetoric in some passages. The soloist’s first entry is a good case, where the ascending thirds are beautifully graded towards the climactic flourish (track 1, 2’06). Even the horn’s clear anticipation of the first subject of the New World Symphony (track 1, 10’21) is not put into ‘neon lights’, as could have been the case with less subtle approaches. In short, it is all so beautifully prepared and executed without losing one jot of spontaneity.

The gorgeous slow movement, with yet more hints of the New World, is also played straight but with great intensity, avoiding any hint of cloying romantic indulgence. Crisp phrasing from Aimard and a real ear for the inner voices from Harnoncourt make this possibly the most rewarding movement on the disc. The artists are also heard at full stretch in the allegro con fuoco finale, with its slavonic dance overtones. Again, absolute rhythmic tautness and great discipline (echoes of the Szell approach) ensure superb results, with passion, grace and fire in equal measure.

The filler, The Noonday Witch, has been available before on a disc devoted to the late symphonic poems, but makes a useful and welcome return here. Harnoncourt’s darkly brooding interpretation, with truly glorious string playing from the Concertgebouw, is as good as any I’ve encountered, and at nearly 30 minutes is a substantial bonus.

The recording is rich and detailed, though I’m slightly confused as to which is ‘live’. The booklet says it’s the concerto (which must have a mightily quite audience) but the Noonday Witch does have hints of ‘liveness’, at least on headphones (shuffling, the odd suppressed cough). Whatever the case, the sound is splendid and no enjoyment of these artists’ achievements is marred. Definitely one for the Christmas stocking!

Tony Haywood


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