Antonín Dvorák: Symphony No. 6 in D major, Op. 60; Vodník, Op. 107

Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, Amsterdam; Yakov Kreizberg (PentaTone SACD PTC5186)

21 July 2008 3 stars

Dvorak Symphony No.6 etcOne can now quite safely conjecture that Yakov Kreizberg and his Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra are in the midst of a Dvořák cycle on the PentaTone label. With two discs of the Czech composer's symphonic and programmatic orchestral works already available, this latest release turns to the evergreen Sixth Symphony in D major, Op. 60 and Vodník (The Water Goblin), Op. 107.

One ideally listens to Dvořák's symphonic poems with the prescribed programme in mind (the music is infinitely more compelling if one does). However, one would be forgiven for thinking that the Sixth Symphony's opening Allegro non tanto was based on an extra-musical narrative, such is the highly individual manner of characterisation that Kreizberg bestows upon the movement. The languid tempo of the second subject in particular verges on the extreme, all but obliterating the ' poco' in 'poco tranquillo'. In fairness, one quickly becomes comfortable with Kreizberg's chosen speeds, aided in no small degree by his organic handling of the fluctuations between them. That said, it's a shame that Kreizberg decides to end the movement with a dreadfully contrived and histrionic broadening of the tempo, a move that aims for depth and substance instead of innocent humour. It ultimately achieves neither.

The rest of the symphony is pleasant enough, if not quite as idiosyncratically rendered. The Adagio is adoringly portrayed, the fluid tempo and iridescent contributions from the woodwind lending an almost operatic lyricism to the music. The fiery third-movement Furiant is a more mixed affair, with the outer sections lacking the rhythmic clout of some recordings and a poorly executed retransition at the end of the central Trio undermining some otherwise superbly expressive playing. Kreizberg's reading of the Finale is a bustling episode of joie de vivre, the conductor skilfully maintaining momentum in a decidedly focused account.

Whilst Kreizberg and the PentaTone engineers ensure that the Symphony is beautifully recorded – countermelodies and bass lines are delightfully palpable throughout – they are equally accountable for the relatively narrow dynamic range on offer. Pianissimos are not as hushed as they might be, and moments of climactic grandeur are often too polite or simply underwhelming. The aforementioned retransition in the Scherzo – an eight-bar crescendo from pianissimo to forte severely lacking in drama – is but one example.

The Water Goblin is based on a vivid Czech folk tale – immortalised by Karel Jaromír Erben's eponymous poetic realisation – that tells the story of a young woman who is kidnapped by a ruthless sea spirit. After they marry and have a child, the young woman begs to return home one last time to visit her mother. The goblin finally grants her wish on the condition that he holds the child as collateral. When she fails to reappear, the goblin, in a fit of rage, kills the baby and hurls it at the cottage in which his wife is staying, severing its head from its body.

Though an unquestionably grisly narrative, Erben's poem is full of evocative descriptive detail which, in turn, draws out some of the finest examples of orchestration and thematic treatment in all of Dvořák's compositions. If only the overtly quasi-narrative energies exuded by Kreizberg during the first movement of the Symphony could have been channelled towards what is, ultimately, a rather matter-of-fact delivery of this tale. There are some notable episodes. The stunned, skeletal-sounding flutes and piccolo in the coda are the height of eeriness, and the driving 'cello and double-bass sextuplets shortly before the maiden is reunited with her mother are strikingly articulated and full of impetus. Too often, however, we find ends of phrases curtailed and opportunities for potential inflection passed up, resulting in a story-telling experience that lacks the sense of foreboding zest and relish achieved by the likes of Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Royal Concertgebouw (Warner Classics 2564 60221-2).

Still, there is easily enough protein in Kreizberg's recording of the Sixth Symphony to whet one's desire for more. With three symphonies and three symphonic poems now committed to disc, a logical prospective progression of his Dvořák series – a performance of the Seventh Symphony, along with the epic Golden Spinning-Wheel – is an intriguing proposition.

By William Norris