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
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.
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
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.