WORKS: The Water Goblin; The Noon Witch; The Golden Spinning Wheel; The Wood Dove
PERFORMER: Czech Philharmonic/Charles Mackerras
CATALOGUE NO: SU 4012-2
Dvorák’s late symphonic poems were his way of re-engaging with the Bohemian heartland after his three-year stay in America. They are based on the folk-inspired ballads of Karel Jaromír Erben which, in true Brothers Grimm style, often have a macabre edge: in the course of these four works there are two infanticides and a dismemberment. But Erben’s verse is also superbly evocative of fairy-tale atmosphere and the mysterious depths of the Bohemian forest.
Clearly Dvorák was completely captivated by their vivid colouring, responding with some of his most pungent orchestration and unfailingly expressive melody, some of it based on settings of key parts of Erben’s poetry. In fact, in pursuit of orchestral perfection, Dvoπák went to the lengths of trying these scores out with an orchestra before committing to a final version. Time and again, he provides novel instrumental combinations, perhaps most unforgettably when he brings together oscillating flutes, a wailing solo oboe and harp to depict the eerie cooing of the Wood Dove.
Though not among the most frequently recorded of Dvorák’s orchestral music, these captivating works have a long and respectable pedigree on disc: from the mid-20th century there are distinguished readings by Václav Talich and Karel Sejna, while István Kertész’s recordings of them, made as a pendant to his pioneering complete set of Dvoπák’s symphonies form the 1960s and early ’70s, remain highly recommendable. Interest in these captivating, at times disturbing works has grown in the last 15 years leading to some impressive recordings from, among others, Jirí Belohlávek and Simon Rattle.
As a one-time pupil of Talich, Charles Mackerras brings his teacher’s almost effortless expressive flexibility to his readings. His approach is also appropriately theatrical, given that the symphonic poems comprise a crucial prelude to Dvorák’s operatic masterpiece, Rusalka.
From the start of The Water Goblin it is evident that Mackerras’s engagement is complete: not only does he capture its febrile energy, he allows the main theme to emerge with breathtaking subtlety from the texture. While there are plenty of beautifully observed nuances, Mackerras clearly revels in the sheer opulence of Dvorák’s orchestral palette, notably in the intoxicating dance sequence at the heart of The Wood Dove.
Equally exhilarating is the surging start of The Golden Spinning Wheel with its evocation of a rider on horseback; although this is the most discursive of the collection, Mackerras manages to nudge along its more repetitive sections to create a strong sense of narrative.
The only disappointing moment is a slightly flat violin solo towards the end of The Wood Dove, an uncharacteristic blemish given that the Czech Philharmonic is throughout on splendid form. This one small qualification aside, these excellently recorded performances conclusively lead the field. Jan Smaczny