Dvorak: Cello Concerto (HQCD review)

Also, Waldesruhe; Rondo in G Minor for Cello and Orchestra.  Maurice Gendron, cello; Bernard Haitink, London Philharmonic Orchestra. HDTT HQCD228.

Given the number of practically rock-star famous cellists in the world, there really aren't all that many famous cello concertos around. For many years, composers sort of shunned the instrument, at least as a solo instrument with orchestral accompaniment, J.S. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and the like pretty much ignoring it except in chamber works. Fortunately, by the late nineteenth century things picked up for the cello, and by the twentieth century it had taken a respectable place in the halls of classical music.

The Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104 (1895), a rather late work by Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904), has since become one of the most-popular cello concertos of all time, and you'll find excellent recordings of it by any number of artists, like Mstislav Rostropovich (DG), Yo-Yo Ma (Sony), Pierre Fournier (DG), Jacqueline du Pre (EMI), Leonard Rose (Sony), Gregor Piatigorsky (RCA), Lynn Harrell (RCA), Pablo Casals (EMI and Dutton Labs), Paul Tortelier (EMI), Rafael Wallfisch (Chandos), Truls Mork (EMI), my own favorite Janos Starker (Mercury), and this mid-Sixties recording from cellist Maurice Gendron, conductor Bernard Haitink, and the London Philharmonic.

What the Gendron-Haitink performance has going for it is intelligence, dignity, spontaneity, and grace; and what the recording has going for it is a terrific remastering by HDTT. Let's begin with the performance. Dvorak gets it started with a big, grand orchestral introduction before the entrance of the cello, a preface that includes references to the work's two main themes to come. Haitink sets the tone by somewhat underplaying it, making sure he and the LPO aren't grandstanding for the sake of glamorizing the music. Not that any of the music lacks power or authority, mind you; it's just that Haitink doesn't emphasize the contrasts as much as some other conductors do. Instead, he ensures that everything flows naturally and fluidly from one element to another. As such, this is one of the most consistently unified and thoughtful Dvorak Cello Concerto interpretations you'll find. Likewise, Gendron's cello playing is unaffected. You get virtuosic style masquerading as simplicity itself.

The Cello Concerto seems to have no end of attractive melodies in it, which Gendron and Haitink are more than willing to point up. For instance, Dvorak wrote the slow, second-movement Adagio while his much-beloved sister-in-law lay dying, and he used one of her favorite pieces of music as a central theme. In it, he creates a lovely, explosively gentle, faintly melancholic mood, with Gendron treating it with the lightest possible touch one minute and the most-passionate energy the next. Yet, as before, neither Gendron nor Haitink overemphasizes the contrasts, making the transitions almost seamless.

In the Finale, Gendron and Haitink may not produce quite the fire that some competing artists do, but as in the rest of the Concerto, they show more interest in the music itself than in any heroics the soloist or orchestra might impart. Still, in its slightly understated way, the Finale comes off with a gleaming lilt and bouncy lift, mesmerizing to the end.

The little Waldesruhe and Rondo in G minor for Cello and Orchestra make suitable companions for the Concerto, again with Gendron and company providing warm and sympathetic readings. You can't go wrong with this disc; it does everything right.

Remarkably, HDTT transferred the recording from a 1966 Philips LP. Yes, I know they usually transfer material from commercial tapes, but when they find an especially good LP in the public domain, they go for it. Anyway, they do their usual spot-on job cleaning it up and presenting it as though a major record company had just recorded it. Indeed, like most of HDTT's products, this one sounds better than 99% of the recordings made today.

Burned to an HQCD, the sound displays excellent orchestral depth, good midrange clarity, taut bass, well-defined percussion, solid impact, and a wide stereo spread. While most of the sound is mellow and smooth, there is a very small degree of brightness in the string tone, mitigated by the warmth of the upper bass. Moreover, the cello appears well integrated with the surrounding orchestral accompaniment. Perhaps as important is the fact that HDTT seem to have applied a little judicious noise reduction in the restoration and transfer process, rendering the recording relatively quiet, without affecting the top end. Except for a few moments during the softest passages, there are no ticks, pops, or background noise noticeable.

This is probably the best-sounding Dvorak Cello Concerto recording currently available. However, understand that the sound is not of the knock-your-socks-off variety; instead, like the performance, it is somewhat conservative, doing everything right without drawing attention to itself.

For further information on HDTT discs and downloads, you can check out their Web site at http://www.highdeftapetransfers.com/storefront.php.

JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa