Dvorak Symphonic Poems

Mackerras has the measure of this music – but so do his two major rivals

Author: 
Rob Cowan
Dvorak Symphonic Poems - Mackerras

Dvorak Symphonic Poems - Mackerras

  • (The) Water Goblin
  • (The) Noon Witch
  • (The) Golden Spinning-Wheel
  • (The) Wild Dove

Premonitions of Janácek abound in these wonderful pieces and Sir Charles Mackerras, like Sir Simon Rattle on his opulent and vividly played Berlin recording, seems to acknowledge the fact in performance, most particularly at 7'44" or thereabouts into The Wild Dove, which could easily have hailed from a first draft for Taras Bulba. Sir Charles also marks the Mendelssohnian drift of the big string theme in The Golden Spinning-Wheel, a performance full of warmth and vitality, very realistically recorded and surely the highlight of the disc. His performing style in this music often reminds me of his one-time teacher Václav Talich, the way dance rhythms are underlined but never overstated (the opening of The Water Goblin), the solidity of the playing and what seems like an intuitive understanding of the music’s extraordinarily strong atmosphere, for example the palpable premonitions of late Mahler at around 6'21" into The Water Goblin.

The one problem, such as it is, is in a significant and charismatic rival (aside that is from the ever-verdant but by now “vintage” Kubelík), namely Nikolaus Harnoncourt, whose recordings of all four tone-poems have a distinctiveness about them that at times upstages even Rattle. Put on the motorised opening of The Golden Spinning-Wheel with its thudding bass drum, or listen to the way Harnoncourt attends to the subtler aspects of Dvorák’s scoring, and his love for the music’s unique sound world is abundantly clear. Where Mackerras captures atmosphere, Harnoncourt relishes the music’s mix of rustic dance forms and colouristic innovation. Mackerras offers the straighter option, which, good as it is, doesn’t conjure quite the same degree of eerie magic, although his version does have the advantage of fitting onto just one CD.

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