WORKS: Symphony No. 8; The Noonday Witch
PERFORMER: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
CATALOGUE NO: 3984-24487-2
Dvorák’s Eighth Symphony is one of the most satisfyingly robust in the repertoire. It gleams with virility from its triumphant rising trumpet calls to its densely textured, bass-led melodies. Yet it can so easily turn into a warhorse. If all the beats march by with the same hammering stresses and tutti chords played full fortissimo, its teeming invention is hidden.
So Harnoncourt’s delightfully light and modest reading comes as a tonic. He draws in the ear, allowing the first movement to creep up surreptitiously, and for themes to enter without the import of heavy rubato. In fact, one of the secrets of this recording is the careful blending across the orchestra.
He makes a swift slow movement, though the climactic trumpet scale ascends out of the light cascade of strings with thrilling poise. By comparison, Kubelík’s Berliners (DG) luxuriate in a shining river of legato sound here, something Harnoncourt studiously avoids. But the Berlin winds sometimes overplay, while the Concertgebouw’s achieve an exquisite limpid sound.
Despite Harnoncourt’s friskier rhythms and keen articulation, the strings occasionally sound underpowered, and the third movement here is a rather shy dance, string phrases falling away bashfully where one would hope to hear a more sustained and soulful line. The effect is wistful, but makes perfect sense as a preface to the graceful opening to the finale. When it wakes, it is brisk and pungent.
For those who love this symphony to thunder down on them, Kubelík’s 1966 account makes a massive impact with the red-blooded Berlin strings, without resorting to a martial or four-square effect. But for a late 20th-century performance, Harnoncourt’s fresh and detailed reading is a winner, and Dvorák’s Noonday Witch is a good coupling: as a study in guilt, its eerie weave and spine-chilling alarms are brought vividly to life.