SACD: Praga Digitals PRD/DSD 250 189
Uh oh. Dvorák's warhorse "New World" symphony played by a married piano duet. This holds all the promise of one of those infernal brass ensemble arrangements that never fail to turn musical gold into, well, brass. (Anyone for another brass quintet version of "Sheep May Safely Graze"?)
But wait. This is actually Dvorák's own 1894 arrangement of his symphony, and it turns out to be both interesting and a little enlightening. If nothing else, it reminds us that until the coming of recorded music at the beginning of the 20th century, if you wanted to hear music outside of the concert hall or church, you usually had to make it yourself. This is why the piano became a fixture in every 19th-century household aspiring to middle-class (or higher) respectability. Liszt made something of a second career putting the music of Beethoven (all nine symphonies), Berlioz, Wagner, Schubert, et al into piano arrangements.
Listening to a piano arrangement of orchestral music is like looking at a house that has been framed but not yet walled: you can appreciate the layout of the thing without being distracted by the details. This is certainly the virtue of Dvorák's arrangement. In particular, the rhythms that undergird the symphony stand out more clearly. Listen to the third movement Scherzo which, stripped of orchestral color, pulses with more energy than you usually notice. The first movement is instantly gripping and even a bit thrilling as it unwinds. But by the fourth movement finale, I got a little weary of it all. No piano virtuoso, Dvorák seems to have a limited tonal palette here. He often lets long trills handle passages of sustained notes. (The habit of a former organist used to that instrument's capacity to hold notes?) Coupled with some aggressive pedaling on the part of the Hrsels, some even more aggressive Lang-Lang-like pounding in the forte passages, and engineering which places you a little further back in the concert hall than I like to be, the symphony's loud or contrapuntally complex passages sound muddy and unpleasant.
Smetana's own 1880 arrangement of "Vltava" ("The Moldau"), the second and best-known tone poem from My Fatherland, completes the disc. I like it better than the main offering, which may have to do with Smetana's greater keyboard virtuosity and the piece's comparative brevity, which doesn't wear out its welcome. While Dvorák keeps everything in his symphonic transcription, he tends to drop some melodies down an octave or omit small details, especially in the upper registers. This creates monotony once the novelty of hearing this familiar symphony in a new guise wears off. By contrast, Smetana has a richer sense of the piano's available tonal colors.
This Praga recording is an SACD hybrid, playable in either Super Audio surround sound or regular stereo. The two rear channels here add extra presence and aural weight to the two pianos, but even with the multi-channels the sound here is rather flat. Played in regular stereo it loses even more dimension.
This is not a disc that most listeners are apt to turn to again and again; but as a taste of the musical parlors of the 19th century it has a small element of charm.