Dvorak Legends

0 of 5 stars

Legends, Op.59
Notturno, Op.40
Miniatures, Op.75a
Prague Waltzes

Budapest Festival Orchestra conducted by Ivan Fischer

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: December 2000
CD No: PHILIPS 464 647-2

Whether as symphonist, composer of significant chamber pieces or as the author of smaller, lighter works, Dvorak the exquisite craftsman always wrote from the heart to the heart (to borrow from Beethoven), often with a touching simplicity using dance forms and folk-like melodies from his native Bohemia.

The ten Legends, not as well known as the two sets of Slavonic Dances, have, in their unassuming way, all the depth of response to be found in Dvorak’s larger musical essays. Dvorak’s subtle, imaginative scoring, his unpredictable but engaging harmonic shifts relate a composer’s need to communicate and share. In the Legends’ case modesty of form should not be mistaken for inconsequential expression – as early as 1’18″ in the first Legend the clarinet has the most beguiling melody; the heartfelt idea for strings that opens the second piece is similarly memorable and wholly personal.

Dvorak was 40 when, as for the Slavonic Dances, he composed Legends for piano duet. One of the joys of Dvorak’s music is his absolute mastery of the orchestra; throughout Legends there is the most innate and gratifying choice of instruments and skilled interweaving of colour. Although Legends as a set tends to be generally thoughtful, the spirit of dance is still present (No.3) which contrasts nicely with the heraldic No.4, the sheer charm of No.5 (with its lovely use of harp) and flowing 6th (a summer day’s trip down the Moldau perhaps). There are so many haunting refrains in this music, and I was occasionally reminded of Elgar (especially during the most introspective moments) – both composers took as much trouble over their ’lighter’ music as they did when composing their biggest statements. Take No.7. This begins with a simple phrase but it’s one underlain with much emotion, then (from 0’24″) there’s bolder material for contrast. O’42″ introduces a friskier rhythm before a repeat (differently scored) of the opening material and at 1’02″ the violins ’sigh’ before enjoying a descending scale. Something more heroic then appears, horns sing out with martial timpani in attendance, flute and bassoon add pertinent comments and the ear delights to horn and flute trills. These are just some of the many aural pleasures on offer.

I love the music and these performances – Ivan Fischer’s light touch and attention to detail and his orchestra’s airy textures and spirited, sensitive playing are just right. I wish though that the BFO had been more warmly recorded in a less spacious acoustic; although textures are clean, upper strings have a tendency to ’whiteness’ in the louder passages, but this is a minor cavil.

I was less concerned with the sound in the rest of the programme. Notturno (for strings) suggests a balmy night, moonlight flecking through trees – music to transplant you to thoughtful reflection (especially if you’re reviewing this CD during an afternoon when the sun is reflecting off the computer screen!). From 3’14″ there is another one of Dvorak’s wonderful, long and expressive melodies that grows (and climbs the scale) quietly but ecstatically burning into one’s consciousness. Also note, from 3’40″, how the second violins’ decorous writing is in perfect accord to the firsts’ sustained notes: Fischer has these sections sitting antiphonally (as Dvorak would have expected).

The Miniatures are a posthumous spin-off for strings (here just a few in number) from the Terzetto (two violins and viola) and Romantic Pieces (Terzetto’s violin and piano re-write). From the Cavatina’s sweet melody to the Elegia’s burdened heart via the folk-fiddle Capriccio and gently singing Romanza, these lovely pieces are a delightful discovery.

So too the swinging Prague Waltzes (full orchestra) which close this excellent CD with couples swaying around the dance floor, onlookers armed with a frothing tankard of ale, as Dvorak affectionately nods in the direction of Johann Strauss and Joseph Lanner. Lovely stuff and played here with style and panache.

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