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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
In Nature's Realm, Op. 91 (1891) [14:49]
Carnival Overture, Op. 92 (1891) [9:38]
Othello, Overture, Op. 93 (1891-2) [14:35]
My Home, Op. 62 (1882) [10:07]
Hussite Overture, Op. 67 (1883) [13:38]
PKF - Prague Philharmonia/Jakub Hrůša
rec. Forum Karlín, Prague, January 2015
PENTATONE PTC5186532 SACD [63:14]

Dvořák planned In Nature's Realm, Carnival, and Othello as a cycle, which he entitled Nature, Life, and Love -- though "Love," as reflected in the Shakespearean Othello, sounds rather grim! On vinyl, however, conductors and producers found it expedient instead to use individual overtures as fillers for the symphonies. CD-length programming has permitted more frequent presentations of the three as a cycle.

Jakub Hrůša mostly does a fine job on this Pentatone program. The conductor and his Prague Philharmonia display the unerring sense of style and inflection that only Czechs bring to their native repertoire; they particularly feel the expressive power of the harmonies. Hrůša's approach to the music is forthright and mobile -- where he occasionally takes an unmarked stretch or tempo adjustment, it's musically motivated, never self-indulgent -- and he has a good ear for colour and contrast in the lighter textures. On the down side, he doesn't take comparable care over the tuttis, which can harden, and he lets an occasional heaviness intrude on the forward impulse.

Thus, in the proud, colourful In Nature's Realm, the string duets at the start are warm but unsubtle; the rest of the introduction is evocative, but the climax at 1:25 falls into segments, rather than speaking in a broad arch. In the third group, at 3:26, Hrůša properly contrasts the legato theme with the detached accompaniment, but those staccatos could be crisper.

A few smudged wind attacks in the home stretch are a passing distraction in an otherwise fine Othello. The introductory chorale moves along, but it's heartfelt; the tuttis go with both rhythmic spring and tonal weight, while the lyric phrases have a poised, dancing lilt.
Carnival, between them, begins well enough. The opening is rousing, the second group relaxes just enough, and the central section flowing and introspective. But the climaxes are earthbound, and the theme's final reprise is a protracted, unvarying din, with the added brass motifs pretty much buried in the noise.

The two free-standing patriotic overtures -- incorporating anthemic themes that also figure in Smetana's Má vlast -- go better. My Home moves with a good rhythmic swing, its tempo relationships are carefully worked out. The conclusion is joyous, though its arrival is underplayed. There's no such problem, however, with the Hussite Overture: the opening wind chorale is coloured with wistful fervour; the strings provide a greater sense of lift as they take it over; and the body of the piece is surging and dramatic.

"PKF," in case you were wondering, stands for Pražská komorní filharmonie, i.e., "Prague Chamber Philharmonic." The orchestra, founded in 1994, doesn't function quite at the Czech Philharmonic level, but plays with full-bodied polish -- it certainly doesn't sound like a chamber orchestra. Woodwind solos, especially in In Nature's Realm, are expressive and delicate. The clarinet, time and again, evokes a distinctive nostalgia, while the English horn is stiff but properly introspective in Carnival.

The reproduction is vivid, with an unobtrusive ambience that enhances the rich resonance of the lower strings as they descend. The brass chords at the start of Othello register with depth, and the solo reeds are clear and round.

These performances have much to offer: time and again, I was struck by their authentic "accents." Still, the competition is formidable. For the cycle, Kubelik (DG) is the choice, though you could also pick and choose: if you could find, say, Rowicki's taut Othello (Philips), Ančerl's idiomatic In Nature's Realm (Supraphon), and any of numerous Carnivals including Szell's (Sony). As for the other scores, Suitner (Ars Vivendi) offers a thrilling My Home -- coupled with a perhaps less thrilling Seventh Symphony -- while Rowicki (Philips again) provides an expressive, translucently recorded Hussite.

Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.

Previous review: Dan Morgan



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