Hungarian-born American cellist Janos Starker (1924-2013) made the Dvorak Cello Concerto something of a signature piece. It's understandable as it was the work he played when he made his concert debut at the age of fourteen. His 1956 performance offered here in an audiophile remaster from Hi-Q Records has the distinction of being among the first-ever stereo recordings of the music.
Starker would record the piece several times, including a 1962 performance with Antal Dorati on the Mercury label. Of the two, I favor the latter one, particularly for its sound, although now that Hi-Q has made this earlier recording available remastered, it becomes more of a toss-up. Certainly, Starker takes a masculine approach to the work in any case, a tack that works well in the outer movements, if not especially well in the second-movement Adagio. Still, it's an interpretation worth investigating.
Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) wrote the Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104 relatively late in his career, 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.
The concerto begins with a long, imposing orchestral introduction before the cello enters, an intro that alludes to both of the work's two upcoming themes, and Maestro Walter Susskind and the Philharmonia Orchestra in its prime manage this preliminatry music as well as anyone. Then when Starker's cello joins the proceedings, he pretty much takes over.
As I said earlier, Starker follows a fairly muscular, aggressive course in the opening movement. In his later Mercury recording, he seemed a little more relaxed, a little less intense, and some listeners may prefer this. His is a highly Romantic vision of the music, to be sure, yet perhaps filtered through a more twentieth-century sensibility.
Then we get the finale, seething with energy and concluding with another touch of melancholy in a climactic love duet before the work's heroic close. Starker and Susskind take a strict view of this last movement, with absolutely no softening or glamorizing of the melodies and a rigid execution of the marchlike rhythms. It may be a tad too stern for some ears, or it may be just right for others. I guess over the years Starker's exacting musical interpretations have grown on me, so it sounds fine to my ears.
Coupled with the concerto is Elegie by French composer Gabriel Faure (1845-1924). Faure may have written this sorrowful lament for a lost love; at least that's the contention. Originally the composer wrote it for cello and piano, but later arranged the orchestral accompaniment we find here. It's certainly a passionate affair, filled with an anguished sadness, and apparently that's how Starker sees it, too. It's a brief piece, hardly over five minutes, yet Starker brings out its longings in a reasonably heartfelt fashion, the cello crying in pain. Still, there is something in Starker's handling of it that seems perhaps too demanding, too calculated, as though he can't quite let his emotions flow entirely freely. But I quibble. It's a lovely work and lovely performance.
As always, the folks at Hi-Q package the disc in a glossy, hardcover, foldout Digipak-type case, the disc fasten to the inside back cover and text notes to the inside.
Producer Walter Legge and engineers Robert Gooch and Michael Grafton-Green recorded both works at Kingsway Hall, London in July 1956. Tohru Kotetsu remastered the recording at the JVC Mastering Center, Japan, using XRCD24 technology, and Hi-Q Records released the disc in September 2015.
The sound is remarkable for its age; indeed, it's remarkable for any age. It's very clean, extremely clear, highly dynamic, and well extended in both bass and treble, the hall adding a sweet and lifelike decay time. The cello appears well represented; quite natural in tone if a bit forward in its perspective; and the orchestra comes across in a realistic width and depth, with plenty of air around the instruments. Is everything, therefore, perfect? Not quite. A couple of minor qualms involve a few extraneous bass clunks toward the beginning (no idea what they were but I replayed them several times just to be sure it wasn't something outside my playback system); a slightly hard upper midrange; and a touch of background noise noticeable when played loudly. These are quibbles are hardly worth mentioning, though, given that the bulk of the sound is as good as or better than most recordings you'll hear today.
Among the lowest prices you'll find for this recording is at Elusive Disc: http://www.elusivedisc.com/
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: