Let's straighten some things out. Some reviewers find almost no merit in this set at all, while others find it to be a winner. If you're trying to decide who to believe, I'm going to try to explain what is causing the differences in opinion. Not that I'm the final word on the subject, of course!
To begin, let me tell you that this recording features what has got to be the world's greatest orchestra with what was then their newly acquired conductor, Sir Simon Rattle. And, in case there's any doubt, the Berlin Philharmonic can play like no other orchestra under the sun, with a big tone that is a joy to hear. They also feature first desk soloists that are simply that best around. That's going to be very apparent in this recording. Rattle sure knows that his orchestra has a wide range of capabilities. The range in dynamics is huge; he surrounds the listener with the big sound of the Berliners in the climaxes and lets his first desk soloists shine in the quiet, yet equally dramatic, soft passages. I'm not sure what is more compelling, those exhilarating moments where everything is taken full throttle or the enchanting moments where the music is almost whispered. You won't fall asleep, that's for sure, for Dvorak has incorporated a large amount of drama into the works. Why don't we hear those poems more often? They contain endless soaring melodies that are possibly even more satisfying than those of the symphonies.
It's the qualities I mentioned above that will make listeners love this recording. However, we still haven't explained what it is about this disc that makes some reviewers look upon it very critically. Is this disc lacking anything? Well, I guess you could say that it is. What Rattle is unable to deliver is anything distinctively Bohemian. You can give Dvorak more fun, more sparkling energy that goes beyond bigness of tone. Perhaps more specifically, these works thrive when they're made light and airy. In his readings of these symphonic poems with the Concertgebouw, Harnoncourt instills all these desired qualities. As if though that's not enough, Harnoncourt is able to deliver nostalgia that washes over the listener in waves. Overall, I think Rattle is probably the better conductor, but Harnoncourt simply is more interesting in Dvorak, who happens to be one of his best composers. That's not to say that Rattle doesn't give any of these qualities; he's just not on the same level.
To summarize, I find myself somewhere in between those who find this a failure and those who find it a winner. There are certainly some very special moments, and the sound of the world's greatest orchestra never grows old. On the other hand, Harnoncourt is more interesting all around. I would recommend his recordings of the tone poems, coupled with the symphonies 7-9 and the piano concerto as the real recordings to have.