Superb Slavonic Dances

0 of 5 stars

Slavonic Dances, Opp.46 & 72

Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Nikolaus Harnoncourt

Recorded in June 2000 (Op.72) and June 2001 in Stefaniensaal, Graz, Austria

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: August 2002
CD No: TELDEC 8573-81038-2

There are few creations as spontaneous and ingratiating as Dvořák’s two sets of Slavonic Dances, originally written for piano, four hands, and then orchestrated with consummate mastery without overlooking local colour such as the bass drum and cymbal combo.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt leaves no stone unturned in his quest for performance accuracy (both in style and ensemble) and his searching out detail and timbre is a constant source of illumination. The COE’s size is ideal – akin to a village band. Harnoncourt understands the dances’ native roots and Dvořák’s retention and extension of them. Harnoncourt’s attention to the vertical constituents of any one bar is revelatory, while his unaffected expressional clarity, and appreciation of the music’s mix of rusticity and sophistication, is spot-on.

For all the minute observations, there is no lack of openness or pathos – from the knees-up that interrupts the gentle musing of Op.46/2 to the heartfelt descending chords that sidle into the otherwise elegant and fiery No.7. In seeking-out textural partials that often go for nowt, Harnoncourt is not bidding favour from anyone who wants to lie back and enjoy a good tune. An awareness of Dvořák’s subtlety and craft is required, as is a need for (re-)discovery.

The COE’s response is razor-sharp and sensitive – the sparkling, buoyant No.5 brilliantly played; the ultimate dance, No.16, is wistful without being mawkish, with some previously unappreciated clarinet cuckoos from 2’28”. This CD is for those wanting to eat whole this Dvořákian cake – with all its earthy ingredients, whether antiphonal violins (untold moments of beautifully balanced dialogue – try the devotional exchanges in Op.72/4), vivid timpani, the merest of tones (bass drum strokes from 1’17” in No.13), rasping, articulate trombones, and much quiet playing and intrinsic emotion.

I had an initial reservation about the recording – too large an acoustic with too small and too distant an orchestra. If this becomes less apparent, reproduction is a little variable, even within the same opus – and live, something only mentioned in the booklet note. But then isn’t all recording live? Forget semantics. Just enjoy familiar music refreshed and new-minted – Slavonic fire and the Czech soul as one.

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