Dvorak: Cello Concerto (HDCD review)
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:
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.