Dvorak: Cello Concerto (HDCD review)

Pierre Fourier, cello; George Szell, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. HDTT HDCD347.

I was lucky enough to have begun listening seriously to classical music at the beginning of the stereo era in the mid Fifties, so I've had the chance to experience a wide variety of recordings from almost all of the world's record companies. One of the things that always struck me about Deutsche Grammophon in particular is how wonderfully well they recorded solo instruments--piano, violin, cello in this case--and how ordinary they managed orchestral music. While solo instruments always sounded perfectly natural, detailed, and clean, their orchestral sound was most often either thin, bright, and hard or thin, bright, and soft. There have been notable exceptions, of course, but this beautifully remastered DG recording from HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) isn't one of them. In fact, it's a perfect example of what I've been hearing from DG for over half a century: in this case, a cello sound that is gorgeous and an orchestral sound that's merely adequate.

Fortunately, HDTT chose another genuine classic to remaster, and one can hardly argue the importance of this 1961 recording of the Dvorak Cello Concerto from cellist Pierre Fournier, Maestro George Szell, and the mighty Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. They produce an interpretation of grand scope and majestic design, the ebb and flow of the music perfectly judged. Interestingly, though, HDTT have also remastered Maurice Gendron's version of the Dvorak concerto with Bernard Haitink and the London Philharmonic, which is an equally good performance with not quite so good a cello sound but a fuller, more-natural orchestral sound. Decisions, decisions.

Anyway, Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) wrote the Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104 relatively late in his career, in 1895, and it has since become one of the most-popular cello concertos in the field. One can hardly discount its late-Romantic qualities, its copious melodies, and its lusty emotions.

Dvorak begins the concerto with a lengthy and stately orchestral introduction before the cello enters, an introduction that references both of the work's two main themes to come, and Szell handles things grandly. Yet when Fournier enters he fully measures up to the conductor's prodigious orchestral contributions, both soloist and orchestra playing with zest, enthusiasm, and an almost electric spark. Fournier attacks the first-movement as few others have even attempted, with no lack of virtuosity in his technique. It's a magical and exciting performance from everyone concerned, uplifting the music to heights hardly seen before or since.

Then we get the central Adagio, which should flow gently along like a slow-moving stream, wistfully, with a touch of sadness. It may have been the illness and eventual death of Dvorak's sister-in-law, with whom he had once been in love, that shared in the melancholy of this and the final segment of the concerto. Although there is never a hint of maudlin sentimentality here, there is nevertheless a sense of profound pensive yearning. It is also here that the partnership of Fournier and Szell proves most fortuitous, the voices of the cello and orchestra intertwining and interacting rapturously.

Lastly, the finale seethes with energy, ending as I say with another touch of melancholy in a climactic love duet before the work's heroic close. The Berlin Philharmonic dazzles us with its skills in the opening moments, a march that opens into a kind of peasant dance soon taken up with rhythmic spring by the soloist. Fournier and Szell again show us why they worked so well together, Fournier coaxing a lushly wistful tone from his cello and Szell matching it with a hearty yet respectful accompaniment. They close the piece in a golden glow.

HDTT transferred the recording in 2014 from a DG 4-track tape originally recorded in June 1961 at Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin-Dahlem, Germany. I mentioned at the outset that the orchestral sound is a tad bright, forward, and thin at the bottom end. So it is, yet it is also quite firm and clean, with a nice sense of dimensionality; and for its somewhat hard high-end brightness there is a compensating midrange warmth that sounds quite pleasant. But the real story is the cello sound, which is ravishing. The instrument is well out front, yet that's perhaps appropriate, and the richness of its tone is difficult to deny. It's one of the best cello sounds you'll hear on record.

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


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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 Jon 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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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.

Mission Statement

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa