Antonín Dvorák: Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70; Zlatý kolovrat, Op. 109

Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, Amsterdam/Yakov Kreizberg (PentaTone PTC5186 082)

22 July 2009 2 stars

KreizbergDvořák's Seventh Symphony may not be considered the composer's most popular – the 'New World' will likely never relinquish that title – yet it is widely regarded as his finest example in the genre, a masterfully-constructed dark and turbulent work which ultimately ends in a blaze of unadulterated glory. The piece has been subject to a formidable discography, with such legendary recordings as Kertesz with the LSO (Decca), Neumann with the Czech Philharmonic (Supraphon), and the Royal Concertgebouw under Davis (Philips). Sadly, Yakov Kreizberg and the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra – completing their survey of Dvořák's last four symphonies and the four symphonic poems Opp. 107-110 – fail to make a significant dent in an already saturated marketplace.

Kreizberg is a highly fastidious conductor, both in his podium mannerisms and in his highly polished interpretations of well-known scores. Having experienced these elements previously, both in concert and on CD, the rather pedestrian performance of the symphony presented here is quite surprising. The refreshingly forward-moving tempo of the opening Allegro maestoso should have allowed for numerous instances of nuanced expressive expansion. Instead, we receive a rather matter-of-fact account with minimal rubato. The metronomic approach works well in the potential stumbling block that is the central section of the third-movement Scherzo, though the outer episodes suffer from a decline in rhythmic punch after their opening bars. Similarly, the Finale fails to retain verve and vivacity for any considerable amount of time, resulting in a somewhat plodding affair. The Poco adagio proves a respite from these woes, deftly phrased and featuring some outstanding woodwind playing. Whilst the codas in both the first and last movements are superbly atmospheric, their potency is diluted by the unexceptional nature of what precedes them.

As with this conductor-orchestra partnership's previous Dvořák release – featuring the Sixth Symphony and The Water Goblin – the sound provided by Pentatone's engineers offers less-than-satisfactory results. Kreizberg's wonderfully crafted accelerando climax in the first movement, and the potentially thrilling shift from pianissimo to fortissimo in the subsequent Poco adagio, are both undermined by a palpably narrow dynamic range. Furthermore, the texture throughout the work is often muddy and ambiguous, and balance between the different sections of the orchestra is often an issue. (The woodwind – arguably the ensemble's standout section – tends to be subordinate to the strings.)

Thankfully, The Golden Spinning-Wheel, Op. 109 receives a much more successful performance. At nearly half-an-hour in length, it is the composer's most substantial and complex symphonic poem, primarily because of its rather involved narrative. A young woman, Dornička, who is betrothed to the King, is gruesomely murdered by her step-mother and step-sister in order for the latter to impersonate Dornička and take her place at the wedding. (Ronald Vermeulen's booklet notes incorrectly state that the King knowingly marries the step-sister 'under the misapprehension that Dornička had been torn apart by wolves'.) Dornička's dismembered body is found in the forest by an old wizard, who sends his messenger to the castle in order to exchange a golden spinning-wheel, distaff and spindle for the dead girl's feet, hands, and eyes respectively. When the King returns from battle, he asks his wife to work the new spinning-wheel, which to everyone's dismay reveals the truth of Dornička's death and the queen's real identity. The King immediately travels to the forest and finds Dornička, who has been restored to life by the wizard. The step-mother and step-sister are subsequently thrown to the wolves.

Dvořák's powers of musical story-telling are in abundance here, and Kreizburg's NPO savour the narrative potential of this work throughout. Though some of the aforementioned oddities in Pentatone's sound persist, the overall balance and texture is much improved, resulting in a recording of greater crispness and clarity. One cannot help but smile during the infectiously jubilant opening hunt, or visualise the King's increasing rage as he hears of Dornička's fate. The prominence of the harp in this rendition is to be applauded, as is the beautifully rounded timbre that emanates from the brass section. This account leaves one wondering why the Symphony wasn't tackled with the same level of care and relish.

By William Norris


KreizbergRelated articles:

CD Review: Yakov Kreizberg conducts Dvorák Symphony No.6 (Pentatone)
CD Review: Jack Liebeck in Dvorák's Violin Concerto etc (Sony)
CD Review: A period instrument 'New World' from Emmanuel Krivine (Naive)
CD Review: The Florestan Trio play Dvorák Opp. 21 and 26 (Hyperion)