Dvorak: Cello Concerto (CD review)

Also, The Water Goblin; In Nature's Realm.  Zuill Bailey, cello; Jun Markl, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. Telarc TEL-32927-02.

Mstislav Rostropovich, Yo-Yo Ma, Janos Starker, Maurice Gendron, Gregor Piatigorsky, Lynn Harrell, Pablo Casals, Paul Tortelier, Rafael Wallfisch, Pierre Fournier: There is a host of superstar cello players who have already recorded terrific performances of Dvorak's Cello Concerto. So, how does newcomer Zuill Bailey fare among the elite? Pretty well, actually. I had quite liked his Bach Cello Suites from a year or so earlier, and this new album is no less impressive.

For many years, composers sort of shunned the cello, 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.

Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) wrote his Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104 in 1895, somewhat late in the composer's career, but it has since become one of the most-popular cello concertos of all time. There's no mistaking its late Romantic trappings, its abundance of melody, and its strong emotional involvement. These are the very qualities cellist Bailey, conductor Jun Markl, and the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra bring out best in the work.

Dvorak starts his concerto with an imposing orchestral introduction before the entrance of the cello, a preface that includes references to the work's two main themes to come. Markl accentuates the music without glamorizing it too much. Then, when Bailey enters, playing a 1693 Ex "Mischa Schneider" Matteo Gofritter cello, he ensures that listeners recognize all the rugged, mountainous power of the piece, while simultaneously bringing out its passionate, lilting sensitivity. It's an accomplished rendition.

Moving on, under Bailey the music of the central Adagio flows gently along like a slow-moving stream, the performer making it sound as wistful as I've ever heard it. Perhaps the illness and eventual death of the composer's sister-in-law, with whom he had once been in love, contributed to this and the final segment of the concerto. Bailey communicates the emotive intensity of the movement well.

Bailey and company guarantee the finale bristles with energy, ending appropriately enough with a touch of melancholy in the climactic love duet before the massive close. Overall, the performance hasn't quite the lyricism of Gendron's reading or the masculine boldness of Starker's interpretation, but it's close enough in both regards.

Accompanying the Concerto are two of Dvorak's more-colorful tone poems. The Water Goblin he based on a rather grim little folk tale that might scare the pants off any child who heard it. Maestro Markl plays up its macabre aspects in high fashion. In Nature's Realm is a more forgiving work, a paean to the enduring and uplifting spirit of Nature. Here, Markl lets the music soar and closes the show in fine form.

Telarc recorded the Concerto live in concert at the Hilbert Circle Theatre, Indianapolis, Indiana, in February of 2011. It's something of a departure for Telarc, recording live; at least, I can't recall their doing many or any live recordings before, although my memory probably fails me. In any case, how they got the audience to remain as quiet as they are is anybody's guess, since the miking is not particularly close up, except on the cello. The sound turns out to be typical of Telarc's previous work in that it's wide, full, and lightly reverberant. It's just a tad heavy, yet it reveals good inner detail and splendid clarity. The orchestra also displays plenty of depth, with good imaging all the way around. Although I wish the cello weren't quite so prominently placed up front, it's a minor concern in a most rewarding presentation.

Two issues I did have, though: (1) The album cover (shown above) looks fairly unattractive, the name "Dvorak" in blue against a dark background rendering it hard to read; and (2) the unfortunate burst of applause after the Concerto almost completely took me out of the mood the performers had so carefully built up for over half an hour. I hope Telarc's art design and their decision to record live are only temporary aberrations.


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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