Dvorák Symphony 9 etc
Claudio Abbado’s high-scoring Berlin Phil New World was big on drama and instrumental ‘class’, but Harnoncourt in particular has so much more to tell us that the balance of recommendation has to shift yet again. Frustrating I know, though it does at least prove that great new records are still siphoning through the system. We do need to be assured of these things.
Here, as in Berlin, the recording was made live. Harnoncourt does, of course, have some distinguished Concertegbouw forebears, not least structure-conscious Sir Colin Davis, combustible Antal Dorati, lyrical Riccardo Chailly (Decca, 9/88 – nla) and, last but by no means least, wilful – though always fascinating – Willem Mengelberg. This, though, beats them all, at least in some respects.
Auspicious happenings register within the first few pages: carefully drawn woodwind lines (0'35''); basses that calm meticulously from fierce fortissimo to tense pianissimo (1'13'' to 1'20''); provocative bassoons (just like Abbado’s, at 2'17'') and an effortless passage into the lovely flute melody at 2'58''. At the start of the development section (around 7'04''), piano violins really are played leggiero (lightly), a significant detail that most rivals gloss over. The exposition repeat is played and, more unusually, so is the Scherzo’s repeat after the Trio. As with earlier instalments in this series, middle and lower voices (bassoons, violas, horns) are granted their full flavour (sample the descending horn lines at 0'28'' into the Scherzo) and the violin desks are divided.
Harnoncourt’s Largo is something of a minor miracle, so much so that it all but monopolised a whole evening’s listening. I think especially of the string passage three minutes in and the gently stressed second-violin line at 3'06''. Undulating clarinets register against shimmering string tremolandos from 5'56'' and, beyond the beautifully judged approach to the Meno passage (bar 78), you suddenly hear quiet second-violin pizzicato chords (7'00'') that you almost never notice in concert.
I initially thought that the ‘tear-choking’ rests that set in towards the end of the movement (where string choirs are paired down to 10 soloists) are just a fraction too long, but I’m already getting used to them. The Scherzo’s tight staccato really dances and, as elsewhere, dynamics are fastidiously graded. And how refreshing to hear, in the finale (at 1'44''), the cymbal roll taken from the diminuendo flute phrase, past staccato bassoons to the full wind chord at bar 66. So often, all you hear is a tiny ‘swish’ – and nothing more.
The finale itself never sags, and for the home strait Harnoncourt treads a course somewhere between the printed Allegro con fuoco and the expressive broadening that Dvorak later sanctioned. The closing bars are played with epic resolve. Like my colleague Andrew Achenbach, what I most admire about Harnoncourt’s Dvorak is its close proximity to nature: barely a minute passes that isn’t somewhere touched by verdure or sunshine.
Had Libor Pesek’s new recording for Classic FM arrived at any other time during the past year, I would have hailed it as a strong contender in an impossibly crowded field. Indeed, I would still recommend it, though Harnoncourt’s myriad observations remain incredibly seductive. Pesek’s earlier recording with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (Virgin Classics, 12/88 – nla – his very first sessions with that estimable orchestra) was clean but relatively cautious, whereas this Prague Symphony re-make is faster, fresher and more spontaneous. Again, the first-movement repeat is observed and while some speeds catch the Prague players sounding somewhat hard-pressed (the first movement’s development and part of the Scherzo are a mite breathless) a compensating sense of excitement suits the impulsive nature of the music.
Pesek’s 10'12'' Largo is at times more like a Larghetto (Abbado clocks up 13'20''; Harnoncourt 12'17'') but the mood is right (more elegiac than solemn) and the finale is full of vigour.
For recording quality, Teldec yields the greater warmth, Classic FM the sharper ‘edge’. And, of course, there are the couplings. Harnoncourt gives us The Water Goblin, the most folk-like of Dvorak’s Erben tone-poems where, as in the Symphony, middle voices (in this case ominous and darkly shaded) rise to the fore and the stamping outer sections are played with great rhythmic bite. Pesek makes winsome music of the lovely American Suite, adding a forthright ‘Vltava’ (faster by a minute than his Liverpool recording) into the bargain. First-timers will find nothing to complain about, but if you think you know the New World back-to-front (as I thought I did) then Harnoncourt will have you thinking again.'