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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Symphonic Poems: Zlatý kolovrat (The Golden Spinning Wheel) (1896), Op. 109/B197a; Polednice (The Noon Witch) (1896), Op. 108/B196b; Vodník (The Water Goblin) (1896), Op. 107/B195c. Holoubek (The Wild Dove) (1896), Op. 110/B198d.
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
rec. Concertgebouw, Amsterdam,  a24-26 October 2001 (live); bDecember 1998 (live); cOctober 1999; dDecember 1997. DDD
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 60221-2 [42:44 + 41:03]



Now this is a real treat. Harnoncourt brings a refreshing slant to Dvořák’s wonderful tone-poems. The catalogue is replete with Czech performances of these works - they remain significantly more popular in the composer’s homeland than elsewhere - but it is good that they have found such a staunch supporter in the ever-inquisitive Harnoncourt.

All four of these works were written in 1896 on his return from America. They take their inspiration from Erben’s Kytice (“A Bouquet of Flowers“). Erben had also fuelled the composer’s Spectre’s Bride - see my review of the Supraphon recording. The first tone-poem to be heard is The Golden Spinning Wheel. As Gunilla Eschenbach points out in her booklet notes, this is a sort of Czech Cinderella - the girl’s name here being Dornicka. Except here it is much more grisly - the Golden Spinning Wheel of the title is used in exchange for Dornicka’s eyes, arms and legs after her dismemberment at the hands of her stepmother and stepsister. Luckily Dornicka gets pieced together again - cue solo violin; she is taken home again and the work ends happily. 

Harnoncourt is very aware of the graphic means the composer calls upon. The horn-calls of the opening are beautifully distanced, but throughout the awareness of the composer’s use of gesture gives a real impression of ongoing narrative. This goes for all four tone-poems in this twofer. Harnoncourt evokes pastoral space (around 4:30) as easily as he does rustic dancing (c12:00-13:00) or oncoming doom (19:00-20:00). Personally I remain unconvinced of Dvořák’s impossibly happy end. But then again, this is a fairy tale, isn’t it?

The Noon Witch is another folkloristic nightmare, with the Witch staking her claims on a child. The child ends up suffocated by its panicked mother. The tone-poem begins with innocent piping; wonderfully rendered here. Harnoncourt ensures that biting strings provide much contrast. The approach of the witch (the second movement) is characterised by almost spectral strings before an ultra-ominous Scherzo depicts the struggle for the child. Here perhaps Harnoncourt could have chosen a touch more active pace. A special mention should go to the excellent solo oboist in this piece.

The Water Goblin takes us to the world of Rusalka. Another tale of child murder, this is superbly realised here; the strings are so together! The aquatic imagery rivals Debussy’s and Ravel’s best efforts in this field - altogether less French, though! Perhaps the most memorable moment is around 14:20, where all is slow, dolorous, superbly balanced by Harnoncourt and almost impossibly beautiful.

Finally, The Wild Dove. This begins with a funeral procession; listen to the superbly articulated strings at around 2:40 and how they suggest a slow, subdued but unstoppable march and moves on to boisterous festivity. The man whose funeral procession it is has been murdered so his wife would be free to marry her lover. The wild dove of the title sits on the husband’s grave stone. Its incessant cooing drives the woman to despair, her guilty conscience gets the better of her and she drowns herself. Harnoncourt ensures the piece makes full emotional impact.

The recording is excellent throughout. This is gripping stuff.

Colin Clarke

see also Review by Michael Cookson






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