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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
The Wood Dove, Op. 110 (1896) [18:50]
Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Taras Bulba (1915-1918) [23:31]
Julius FUČÍK (1872-1916)
Marches and Polkas:
Entrance of the Gladiators [2:52]
Danube Legends [9:57]
Marinarella [10:34]
The Jolly Village Smithy [2:46]
Winter Storms [12:04]
The Florentine March [5:21]
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Václav Neumann
rec. live, March 1986, Dvořák Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague; Smetana Hall, Prague (Fučík).
Sound Format: PCM Stereo. Picture Format: 4:3; Region Code: worldwide; Resolution: 1080i High Definition (Upscale)
ARTHAUS Blu-ray 109122 [89:00]

Václav Neumann (1920-1995) was Chief Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic from 1968 until 1990. These recordings, therefore, were made when the relationship between conductor and orchestra was very well established. The booklet states that the performances were given in the Smetana Hall, Prague. However, that’s only the venue for the Fučík performances which were recorded with no audience present despite which, rather oddly, the musicians are all dressed up in white tie and tails. The other performances were recorded at a concert, which clearly took place in the orchestra’s regular home, the Rudolfinum.

The Wood Dove is one of five symphonic poems that Dvořák composed in 1896, basing most of them on folk stories. The cheery tale that inspired this particular piece concerns a young woman who poisons her husband and remarries but then becomes tormented by hearing a wood dove singing from its nest on her husband’s grave. Eventually, haunted by the bird’s constant singing and wracked with guilt, she kills herself. I have to admit that the music doesn’t strike me as representing Dvořák at his most compelling though there’s a charming violin melody about 10 minutes into the score and the orchestration includes some interesting and unusually dark sonorities. However, the piece is not deserving of the neglect into which it and the other symphonic poems have fallen. The orchestra plays the piece very well. Neumann appears a bit stiff in his conducting, though his beat is admirably clear; he gets good results from the Czech Philharmonic.

Initially I thought Taras Bulba was going to be a bit of a disappointment. That was because the first movement, ‘The Death of Andrei’ wasn’t as gripping in its dramatic passages as some conductors – Ančerl or Mackerras, for example – have made it. Even so, the lyrical sections were beautifully done. The other two movements engaged me much more strongly, however. ‘The Death of Ostap’ is very good, the ending exciting. ‘The Prophecy and Death of Taras Bulba’ is particularly successful. Neumann leads a tense and dramatic performance and I like the fact that the organ registers well though not overpoweringly.

I rather think I would have enjoyed both of these performances much more had I been in the audience. Part of the problem lies in the visual aspects of this film. The camera work is extremely conservative; for one thing almost all the images are close-ups of either the conductor or of one or two players. This makes the pictures seem claustrophobic and the 4:3 picture format doesn’t help at all. In summary ones view of the performances is very confined.

It’s pretty much the same in the ‘bonus’ Fučík tracks. Here once again the presentation of the disc falls down. The menu, if one can call it that, is useless. I found it was impossible to play the Dvořák/Janáček performances in any way other than by starting the film off and then skipping through the tracks to get to Taras Bulba. Matters were even worse when it came to the Fučík ‘bonus’. I pressed every conceivable button on my remote control but couldn’t find a way to bring up the Fučík tracks. I nearly gave up but eventually I got there, though I have no idea how I achieved this nor have I any confidence that I could repeat the feat. All I can say is 'Good Luck!'

If you can find them the Fučík performances seem to me to be good though I have to confess that this repertoire isn’t really my cup of tea. In the famous Entrance of the Gladiators I had the impression that the orchestra was playing with spirit almost despite Neumann’s rather bandmasterly beat. He relaxes a bit thereafter. The CPO plays Marinarella as if the music is in their blood, which is probably the case. The title of The Jolly Village Smithy is accurate: it is indeed a jolly piece, complete with contributions from two percussionists playing hammers and mini-anvils. The Florentine March is good fun and is played with plenty of spirit. Having said that, I didn’t detect many smiles on the faces of the musicians during these performances; everything is done in a rather serious, po-faced fashion. Incidentally, the Vienna Philharmonic was long berated for the lack of women in its ranks. With the exception of the two harpists I couldn’t spot a single female payer in the ranks of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra vintage 1986.

The sound quality is satisfactory, though nothing special. I got better results when I put the disc into the Blu-ray player that I have connected to my hi-fi and played it as an audio disc. However, though the sound was then more vivid the age of the recording was readily apparent. Overall, I can’t say that this Blu-ray is an essential purchase.

John Quinn



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