Dvořák: Poetic Tone Pictures review – brilliant, skittish, fairytale gems brought to light | Classical music

‘I love this music and no-one seems to play it.” It’s only a slight exaggeration on Leif Ove Andsnes’s part to say that about Dvořák’s Poetic Tone Pictures; this beautifully recorded release is one of only a handful available, and he is the highest profile of today’s pianists to have recorded this baker’s dozen of miniatures.

You’ll wonder why on earth they have flown under the radar for so long. Evocatively titled individually and often sounding deceptively simple, they come from a similar impulse to that of Schumann’s Kinderszenen, Grieg’s Lyric Pieces or even Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. It’s not certain whether Dvořák wrote them to be performed together as a collection or not, but they work well this way, not because they tell an extended story but because each fits into the sonic context of what comes before.

The artwork for Dvořák: Poetic Tone Pictures. Photograph: Sony Classical

There’s a once-upon-a-time, scene-setting feel to the opening piece, Twilight Way, its skittish middle section anticipating the lighter restlessness of the next one, Toying. Then comes one of the highlights of the set, In the Old Castle, in which Dvořák constantly keeps the key and our perception shifting: is this place benign or sinister?

Later on there’s a vigorous Furiant – Dvořák’s love of Czech folk-dance rhythms is never far away – and a perky Dance for some unusually sweet-sounding Goblins, who take a rather languorous rest in the middle. There’s a fairytale atmosphere to many of the pieces, but that’s not to say they are simple: Andsnes works hard to make them sound effortless, not least in the crazily fast detail of the 10th piece, Bacchanalia, brilliantly dispatched. These are not cosy children’s pieces: Dvořák’s harmonies and melodies never do quite what one expects, and nothing is purely whimsical. Instead, as with Schumann and Grieg, there’s the sense that one is listening to a composer who is delightfully fascinated by the small complexities of the world around.

This week’s other pick

A timely reminder of the brilliance of the Britten Sinfonia, now brutally defunded by Arts Council England. Signum’s six-CD set documents the Sinfonia’s two-year concert series conducted by Thomas Adès, pairing Beethoven’s symphonies with works by Gerald Barry. The performances are dynamic, the juxtapositions of works illuminating in a sidelong way: this is the kind of rewarding work this ensemble’s East Anglian and London audiences have come to expect, making its treatment by ACE all the more unsound.

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