DVORÁK: Symphony No. 8 in G, Op.88. The Noon Witch, Op.108.
I would never have expected this. Turns out that, deep down inside Nikolaus Harnoncourt, the man who spearheaded the movement towards sewing-machine Baroque, a closet Romantic has been lurking all along.
The conductor 's idiosyncratic recordings of two Strauss operettas (Die Fledermaus and Der Zigeunerbaron, both Teldec) insufficiently prepared me for the Mengelbergian battery of interpretive devices he applies to Dvorák's music. He manipulates tempi for expressive effect, not merely between theme groups but within them as well, and marks off musical phrases by inserting unmarked luftpausen seemingly at will. He balances this with a contemporary care over long-term coherence -- maintaining consistent tempi in exposition and recap, for instance -- but the performance as a whole comes off as almost freewheeling in its overt dramatics. On top of this, from the dignified, elegiac opening to the sturdy, triumphant finish, Harnoncourt has considered every phrase afresh, to frequently striking effect -- the brief low-string chorale bridging the first movement's two themes, ordinarily just a transition, sings with patriotic fervor.
The slow movement perhaps benefits most from Harnoncourt's quirky ministrations. Too often, its fragmentary opening phrases move in fits and starts, leading some conductors to straitjacket the music so as to conceal this short-winded construction; Harnoncourt adopts the opposite strategy. The opening string phrases are attacked directly, yet shaped like tender sighs. Then, the octave flute/oboe calls push ahead impulsively, to be answered each time (after an unwritten pause) by slower, more sober clarinets and bassoons. By playing up the differences among the motifs, Harnoncourt leads the listener along, building steadily to the climaxes and the graceful pastoral episodes, resulting in one of the few performances I've heard that unequivocally works.
Of course, if you're going to try this sort of thing, especially recording in concert, it helps to have a first-class orchestra at your disposal. The Royal Concertgebouw responds to Harnoncourt with alert, characterful playing which is smooth and burnished in tone as well; not only is the interpretation individualistic, but the performance sounds beautiful. The trumpets come unstuck from the strings in tutti on a few occasions; on the other hand, the concert recording doesn't faze the principal horn, whose high running figures come off with focused, brazen tone and clear articulation most exciting.
If I were going to quibble, the third-movement Trio sounds a bit reined-in and withheld. And, for all their persuasiveness, Harnoncourt's Romantic gestures lack the ultimate spontaneity of a Stokowski -- one seems to hear the wheels turning. But I was quite taken by the way Harnoncourt would repeatedly shine a new light on phrases which I had come to take for granted, and I suspect I shall be returning to this performance frequently in the future.
The Noon Witch, like Dvorák's other symphonic poems, suffers mildly from the disjunction between the music's genial Bohemian lyric strain and its Rather grisly program based on Czech folklore. Harnoncourt's incisive string attacks and stabbing trumpets bring out the score's drama, without slighting the more songful respites between.
Teldec's handsome engineering, though lighter in weight and less conspicuously resonant than Philips' old Concertgebouw recordings, sounds even clearer, without any sacrifice of depth and richness.