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Dvorák: Cello Concerto
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Un coup de maître ! Jamais avant Dvorák, on n'avait si bien écrit pour le violoncelle concertant : l'oeuvre du compositeur tchèque a rejoint sans conteste le panthéon des concertos pour piano ou violon. En complément de ce chef-d'oeuvre de légende, Jean-Guihen Queyras retrouve Isabelle Faust et Alexander Melnikov dans le non moins fameux Trio "Dumky"?
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This recording works surprisingly well. Queyras is a fine cellist with a smooth, burnished sound and impeccable intonation and is content to let the music speak for itself instead of trying to wring every last ounce of emotion as in the recording by Jacqueline de Pre and the CSO. His first movement is a bit slow for my taste (15:24). Here are some first movement comparisons:
Starker/LSO--15:08; Mork/OPO--15:04; Rostropovich/BPO--15:36 (!); du Pre/CSO--15:19.
I am more than a little surprised at how well the orchestra does,since this appears to be not quite a pick-up group, but, as the notes say, an orchestra of "flexible size." The best orchestral accompaniment is the LSO with Starker, but many are put off from this recording by what they see as Starker's laconic approach to the music. My own #1 choice is Mork with the Oslo PO. The Oslo are not in the same league as the LSO or the NYP (with Ma), but they are good enough and Mork is virtually in a class by himself. But this is a very fine performance, albeit quirky due to the use of a chamber orchestra.
Most other recordings couple the Dvorak concerto either with another concerto (Saint-Saens #1, Haydn C major) or with Kol Nidre and/or the Rococo Variations. For the uninitiated, Dumky is plural for Dumka. A Dumka is a song, probably Ukranian in origin (but no one sings here). It is really a misnomer to call this a trio, even though there are three players. It is really a six-movement suite. Here, Queyras teams up with violinist, Isabelle Faust and pianist Alexander Melnikov for a very enjoyable Dumky. If they don't give the outstanding, nuanced performance of the 1978 Suk trio recording, they are good enough for most tastes and the recorded sound is very fine. Remember, the Czechs have this music in their blood.
Bottom line: If this coupling appeals to you, grab it since I don't know of any competing version. If you are a casual collector and want only one recording, I think the Mork will suit you well. If you are a cellist, cello fancier or a collector of multiple versions, you should feel no hesitation to add this one to your collection along with any others you own. You will be coming back to it many times. (Disclaimer: I have not heard the Wispelwey recording).
Possibly it's Queyras's profound understanding of the baroque cello and of the aesthetic of "historically informed performance" than makes his cello so lovingly voice-like. Think of a voice like that of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, a voice that can project beauty on every note of its range and warmth at ever level of dynamics. That's Queyras's cello. Besides, his bowing is far more precise than Ma's, and it makes his quick passages both elegant and eloquent, while Ma's sound only vigorous. This is unquestionably the best performance of the Dvorak I've ever heard.
Some reviewers elsewhere have objected to the recording technology of this CD. They accurately point out that the cello is close-miked, while the orchestra is miked for a more general ambience. Thus, they say, the sound you hear is unlike any sound you would hear in alive performance. And so it is, but all for the better! What you hear is what the cellist himself hears while playing: his own voice in his own space, in dialogue with the orchestra BEHIND him. The concerto form is always potentially such a agon, soloist against symphony. A cello concerto risks much, in that the cello doesn't easily hold its own against 20 violins and a ragtag of other instruments. The forces used by the Prague Orchestra in this recording are not so small - 14 violins, for instance, and three horns - but conductor Jiri Behohlavek reins them in and makes the ensemble sound as tight as a chamber orchestra.
Then, happy day, the CD is rounded out with the finest music Dvorak ever wrote, the "Dumky" Trio #4 for piano, violin, and cello, rather than the oft-paired Cello Concerto by Victor Herbert - Ma's match-up - which I'd be willing never to hear again. Pianist Alexander Melnikov and violinist Isabelle Faust clearly share the same aesthetic as Queyras; they seem to listen "through' each other with generous ensemble. Altogether this is a 'magnificent' CD. Note that there seem to be several 'editions' or releases of it, at different prices, including in in SACD.
And then, change set in. The "other" approach had apparently always coexisted (witness the first movement of Piatigorsky-Ormandy in 1946, Gregor Piatigorsky: Great Cello Concertos), but it took sway past the mid-1950s (together with becoming more and more radical). One of its main champions was Rostropovich, as early as his premiere recording in 1952 with the Czech Philharmonic under the baton of Vaclav Talich, and his remake with Karajan from 1968 radicalized that, and his re-remake with Giulini in 1977 radicalized even that (product links in the comments). The approach's main features are the image in negative of those I described for the earlier paradigm: tempi became increasingly expansive (and inobservant of Dvorak's metronome marks), and by way of consequence (because tempo hugely impacts on character) the mood was no more of assertive heroism but brooding and pastoral, tutti in all three movements were made to sound majestic rather than heroic (when not downright sluggish), and, starting in the orchestral introduction when the horn intones the second subject, everybody started lingering on the lyrical passages of the two outer movements, stepped on the breaks to let you enjoy the view, apparently unaware that they were making the lyricism no more lyrical but only plangent and sentimental, and equally oblivious or unaware of or uninterested in the fact that this constant playing go and stop with tempo put paid to the movements' cogency, made them seem to move forward by spurts and sound more episodic and piecemeal than they are.
And it isn't only a matter of a new generation of performers. Same performers, when they later re-recorded the Concerto, played it according to the new principles. Timings give a pretty graphic description of those evolutions:
13:29 / 10:31 / 11:43 Casals Szell 1937
12:57 / 11:41 / 10:23 Feuermann-Barzin
13:30 / 10:02 / 11:23 Kurtz-Toscanini 1945
14:21 / 10:33 / 11:21 Piatigorsky-Ormandy 1946
15:42 / 13:11 / 12:57 Piatigorsky-Munch 1960
14:51 / 11:11 / 12:56 Rostropovich Talich 1952
15:36 / 12:38 / 12:55 Rostropovich-Karajan 1968
16:22 / 12:50 / 13:37 Rostropovich-Giulini 1977
14:13 / 10:29 / 12:18 Starker-Süsskind 1956
15:00 / 11:16 / 11:38 Starker-Dorati 1962
14:20 / 10:14 / 11:43 Tortelier-Ackermann 1951
15:14 / 11:32 / 12:12 Tortelier-Previn 1977
15:15 / 13:10 / 13:23 Du Pré-Barenboim 1970
15:15 / 11:58 / 12:28 Queyras-Belohlavek 2004
And the new approach won, to the point that hardly anybody in the stereo era recorded Dvorak's Concerto according to the "old" way. There's a recording, I think from the mid-1960s, never widely circulated (it came on the Eurodisc label), by Tibor de Machula with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra under old German veteran Arthur Röther, that keeps the flame vacillating... you can hear it on You Tube. If another, since Navarra-Schwarz in 1955, I haven't come across it.
And everybody today seems happy with the new approach. Of course, you could say that preferring one or the other is a matter of taste, and that, even though the old way is arguably (based on metronome marks) closer to what Dvorak had in mind, it doesn't matter, as long as the "new" and expansive approach has valid things to say musically and emotionally. Apparently it does, since everybody seems to have adopted it.
But in fact, I don't think people HAVE a choice, because the new approach has become such a standard, it has so blotted out of everybody's memory and awareness that there was and can be another approach, that everybody - audiences AND performers - thinks this is the only way, they are convinced that playing Dvorak with expansive tempi (far slower than his metronome indications), thick and majestic tutti, and taking every opportunity to linger on the lyrical moments, IS Dvorak's Concerto (and some probably hate it precisely because of that). Hardly anybody realizes that, no, this is not the only possibility in Dvorak's Cello Concerto, this is NOT "Dvorak's Concerto" but an interpretation, and in fact it is a distortion of Dvorak's emotional message.
And I can't believe that faced with the choice between a heroic concerto, with passages of intense lyricism and passionate longing, and a pastoral and sentimentally longing concerto interrupted by majestic orchestral outbursts, anybody could actually prefer the second proposition. I certainly don't, but who knows: give the people a choice! And I certainly am unhappy not only with the way the Concerto has been played since Rostropovich, but furthermore that there seems to be no recorded proposition in modern stereo of the "old" way. If there is, I haven't come across it (the Fanfare review gave me reasons to think that Vogler-Robertson may be one, I've ordered it, The Secrets of Dvorak's Cello Concerto).
So, that's the axe I grind. Long introduction and context then to get to Queyras-Belohlavek. They are no different than anybody else. In fact this version is like anybody else's. Compare the timings, they are telling. Queyras-Belohlavek are in the norm, with no excesses.
I've read (in Fanfare) that the chamber size of the orchestra lets you hear more transparency of orchestral details. Not really, at least in the first two movements: all those details can be heard in any version with a conductor worth his ilk. In the Finale some woodwind details do come out more clearly than in other versions. Belohlavek's opening tempo in the first movement is at 96-100 quarter-notes per minute, to Dvorak's 116. Like everybody else he slams on the breaks and lets the horn majestically unfold at 2:11 - very pretty, if "pretty" is what you want. At the end of that passage, at 3:07, when comes the orchestral tutti supposedly played at the opening tempo, Belohlavek takes it closer to 108 and the orchestra articulates crisply, but it still sounds slow, more playful than suggesting any hint of heroism. Queyras enters at 3:35 (Casals was there in 3:09, Tortelier with Mengelberg and Edmund Kurtz with Toscanini in 3:08, Feuermann with Barzin in 3:05) and I don't find his attack particularly "risoluto" as Dvorak instructs. That he phrases the sixteenth-notes of the two opening phrase as if they were different rhythms, the first tight and the second slack, can be ascribed to the interpreter's expressive freedom, although the expressive result of the slackness is to deprive the phrase of its bite and assertiveness (and when the same motto is played in the first movement and again in the Finale by various orchestral sections or soloists, they certainly don't try and emulate the effect; to expect that kind of far-seeing coherence is obviously demanding too much). As everybody since Rostropovich his ensuing sforzando chords are heavy and thick, as if he were trying to imitate a double-bass. In the dashing passages (first one at 4:34) his sixteenth-note runs and arpeggios are as dashing I guess as anybody else's who plays them within the same kind of expansive tempi, but if you want to know what "dash" is, go to those pre-1955 versions. And all his lyrical passages are sentimentally longing - very pretty again, and will offer complete satisfaction if it is "pretty" and "a touch sentimental" you want, and are not concerned by architectural cogency, by keeping a sense of flow and destination. Queyras' scales in double stops at 11:25 sound a bit labored and the ensuing orchestral surge, which should be so grandiose and lyrical, sounds here very weak (aside from sounding terribly sluggish), but it's a small detail.
As the timings show, although taken at a tempo far slower than Dvorak's metronome (circa 84 eighth-notes/mn vs 108), there is nothing radical either, e.g. radically slow, to Queyras' and Belohlavek's Adagio, not compared to Piatigorsky, Rostropovich or Du Pré. And the Finale is launched into at a very pressing marching rhythm, now considerably faster than Dvorak's metronome, circa 126 quarter-notes to Dvorak's 104, almost the tempo of Barzin with Feuermann, although when he enters Queyras doesn't maintain the momentum as Feuermann did, or even Rose with Rodzinski, and Belohlavek's orchestral outbursts don't approach the hair-raising intensity of Barzin's and Rodzinski's. And of course, whenever possible, Queyras lingers on the lyrical phrases - it starts at 2:23. But still, he and Belohlavek maintain an acceptable balance between the urgent and the lyrical lingering, and Belohlavek's orchestral tutti have reasonable muscularity (4:11, 5:18).
Piatigorsky-Munch, Starker-Dorati, Rostropovich-Karajan or Rostropovich-Giulini, Du Pré-Barenboim, Tortelier-Previn, (for those I've heard; but I'm sure I can add Rostropovich-Ozawa, Ma-Maazel, Ma-Masur, Harrell-Levine, Harrell-Ashkenazy, Maisky-Bernstein, Maisky-Mehta, Capuçon-Järvi and many more) and now Queyras-Belohlavek, all are fine: making subtle distinctions between them is always possible, but tantamount to nitpicking, they are all variations of the same thing, and Queyras-Belohlavek is as recommendable as anyone else. Among those, only one that I've heard truly stands out: Du Pré live with the Swedish Radio Orchestra under Celibidache in 1967, because they are so radically slow, because within this slow approach Celibidache has such a great sense of balance, and because Du Pré is so radically intense in her bowing (see my review of Dvorák: Cello Concerto, Op. 104 / Saint-Saëns: Cello Concerto No. 1, Op. 33). But I urge anyone who feels a strong love for Dvorak's Concerto to listen to one of those early versions before they decide (Kurtz-Toscanini is, sonically, the most recommendable, and it sells cheap. Avoid Rose-Rodzinski, if even you can find it cheap enough, there's a cut in the first movement). Only when they have can they make a real CHOICE of what they prefer. In fact, I even urge those who think they detest Dvorak's Concerto to try Kurtz-Toscanini. Maybe what they detest is not the Concerto but the expansive and sentimental approach to it. So, if they listen to Kurtz-Toscanini and still hate it, then they'll know at least that they really do.
Dvorak's Dumky trio makes an original complement, and serves as a pendant to Harmonia Mundi's recording of the Violin Concerto with the same Belohlavek and orchestra with Isabelle Faust, paired with the Trio op. 65 with the same performers as here (Violin Concerto / Piano Trio Op 65). I have no particular knowledge of the interpretive history of the Dumky trio, and will offer no opinion on the interpretation until I do, which may be in a few decades. The music is wonderful.