Nikolaus Harnoncourt, now 80, has had an esteemed career in both the concert hall and in recordings even though his sometimes too personal approach can render a recording either inert or wayward. A good example of the latter is his recording of Bruckner's Symphony No. 5 Bruckner - Symphony No 5
which is wonderful when Harnoncourt adopts a hands-off style but fails when he interjects his misguided ideas about pacing and stop and go tactics, especially in the finale.
Thankfully, Harnoncourt does none of this with Dvorak's symphonic poems The Golden Spinning Wheel, The Noon Witch, The Water Goblin and The Wild Dove. Here, in contrast to the Bruckner, his pacing is so expansive it takes two disks to capture everything he and the wonderful Concertgebouw Orchestra have to say about this music. While Charles Mackerras squeezed all four of these tone poems onto a single Supraphon disk Dvorak - Symphonic Poems
in his new recording with a total time of 79:46, it takes Harnoncourt and Concertgbouw 82 minutes to get it all done. Since this twofer is a two for one proposition usually available at a discount from Amazon vendors, you won't overpay for it.
If you're not familiar with this part of Dvoark's orchestral ouevre, the four symphonic poems were composed in succession during 1895-96 (they are opus 107-110 and Burghauser Nos. are 195-198) at the same time as the composer's string quartets. Exploiting the poetry of Czech author Karel Erben, Dvorak created what amounts to four Grimm's fairy tales full of childhood trepipation, fear and foreboding. The Noon Witch is a characterization of a witch that takes away a misbehaving boy who has ignored the warnings of his mother. One source says, "...the child does not listen and the witch comes at the stroke of noon. Soon afterwards, the father arrives to see his wife who has fainted with the dead body of their little son in her arms."
The stories for all four are similar although the concept of the Golden Spinning Wheel is too ridiculous to describe. The music is full of Dvorak's late harmony, melody, dance rhythm, orchestration and emotion you hear in the mature symphonies. These are masterpieces that, for whatever reasons, have not caught on with the public like the tone poems of Tchaikovsky or Liszt. For fans of Czech music, they compare favorably to the tryptich of Smetana's "Swedish" tone poems Smetana: Orchestral Works
Harnoncourt captures the drama of the poetry in each case and the Concertgebouw is wonderfully realized in sound of extraordinary presence, depth and realism. The Penguin Guide The Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music 2010: The Key Classical Recordings on CD, DVD and SACD
called this one of Teldec's best recordings; both the sound and artisry are world class, making this one of Harnoncourt's greatest recordings.
He's had others I'd put in this category, too. A short list would include his outstanding recording of a trio of Haydn horn-prominent symphonies Haydn - Symphonies Nos 31, 59 & 73
- Concentus Musicus Wien / Nikolaus Harnoncourt, his record of Mendelssohn's Midsummer's Night Dream and First Walpurgis Night Mendelssohn - A Midsummer Night's Dream. Erste Walpurgisnacht.
, and his masterful recording of Schubert's Mass No. 6 Schubert: Mass No.6
There are those that adore his Beethoven and Brahms symphonies, but I don't count myself among them.
This recording is a winner, however, and is at least as good as the best competition out there including Mackerras, Kubelik Dvorák-Slavonic Dances Op. 46 & 72; Overtures; Symphonic Poems
and Vaclac Neumann Dvorák: Symphonic Poems
while history buffs have Talich's classic renditions available Dvoák - Symphonic Poems
. To me, this recording beats all the others in this repertory.