Monday, June 14, 2004

Bohemian Rhapsodies

If you're looking for some good, relatively inexpensive recordings of the music of Antonin Dvorak, you could do worse than start with this five-disc set. Incorrectly labelled "complete symphonies," it's actually a grab-bag of Dvorak recordings issued to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his death. It includes recordings by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Royal Concertgebouw orchestra of Dvorak's last three symphonies (7, 8, and 9) and the four long symphonic poems ("The Wood Dove," "The Noon Witch," "The Water Goblin" and "The Golden Spinning-Wheel"). The performance of 7 is kind of subdued and fussy -- for a properly intense, no-holds-barred performance of Dvorak's darkest symphony, you might want to go with James Levine -- but the 8 is excellent and the performance of 9, the "New World," is just about the best recent recording I've heard; the Concertgebouw's celebrated wind players are perfect for this symphony (whose most famous moment is the cor anglais solo on the tune that later became "Goin' Home, Goin' Home"). The symphonic poems, which were written late in Dvorak's life and represent his celebration of musical nationalism or his sellout to Wagnerian-Straussian program music (depending on which critic you're reading) are also extremely well done. The set also includes performances of the "Life, Nature and Love" overtures (including the famous "Carnival") by the New York Philharmonic under Kurt Masur; David Zinman conducting the "Legends" and "American Suite," and the "Czech Suite" conducted by Armin Jordan. I haven't listened to these yet. The set only seems to be available in England at this point.

If you already have good recordings of the last three symphonies, and after all there have been plenty, Deutsche Grammophon has an excellent and cheap 3 CD set of the symphonic poems, overtures and "Slavonic Dances" conducted by Rafael Kubelik. Like Harnoncourt, Kubelik divides the violins left and right (firsts on the left, seconds on the right), which brings out the antiphonal effects -- phrases played by the firsts being echoed by the seconds, and so on -- that Dvorak and most composers of his time wrote into their music.

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