Dvorak: Cello Concerto (CD review)
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.
William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer
Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.
The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.