The character of an orchestra's performance depends heavily on the conductor, as this five-disc set of music by Dvorák proves. With a great conductor like Colin Davis, the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam has created deathless recordings ofDvorák's last three symphonies. With an uneven conductor like Nikolaus Harnoncourt, however, the Dutch players' performances sound astoundingly, almost stubbornly wrong-headed.
Harnoncourt reads Dvorák's musical language as if he had never heard it spoken. His accents are on the wrong syllables, his diction unnatural, and his pronunciation all wrong. It's not that the three works here don't sound like late Romantic symphonies. It's that they sound like they were written by a much lesser composer than Dvorák, a composer who has something to say, but seems to have no idea how to say it, and instead goes from cliché to oxymoron to malapropism, hopelessly hunting for the words that never come. Harnoncourt's readings of four of the composer's late tone poems based on Czech fairy tales are even more interpretively inappropriate. They sound not at all Czech -- one of the lesser Scandinavians composers, perhaps, or one of the better Poles -- and not at all like fairy tales. With their stylized but extreme violence, they could possibly be performances of scores for early Expressionist slasher films.
Much better are the performances by Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic of Dvorák's triptych of overtures: In Nature's Realm, Carnival, and Othello. Though perhaps a bit too Brahmsian in their textures, at least these are brawny readings that make a persuasive case for the works. Not nearly as good as the New York Philharmonic's overtures, but not nearly as bad as the Concertgebouw's symphonies is the stuffy performance of the Czech Suite by Armin Jordan and the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne, which, though too heavy for the music to bear, at least sounds like Dvorák. By far the best performances here are those of Dvorák's Legends, with the Rochester Philharmonic led by David Zinman. Ripe and luscious performances that sing and sway with an ease and naturalness that sound wholly authentic, the readings by Zinman and the Rochester musicians are easily among the finest recordings of the works ever made. The recorded sound is variable. Harnoncourt gets the cleanest, while Masur gets the loudest, Jordan the thickest, and Zinman the warmest.