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.

JJP

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

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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.

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.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa