Dvorak: Cello Concerto (XRCD review)

Also, Silent Woods. Jacqueline du Pre, cello; Daniel Barenboim, Chicago Symphony Orchestra. ARC ARCXRCD806.

When Jacqueline du Pre (1945-1987) made this recording in 1970 with her husband Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, she was already one of the most-famous and most-accomplished cellists in the world. However, although Ms. du Pre's Dvorak performance is good, it probably isn't one of her signature recordings. Still, if you like the sound, which admittedly takes a little getting used to, the new remastering does more with it than ever before.

British cellist Jacqueline du Pre (1945-1987) began studying the cello at age five, winning the first of many awards at age eleven, followed by television and concert appearances. (Her formal debut was at Wigmore Hall, London in March 1961, when she was sixteen.) Then came the recording career, and the rest, as they say, is history. She met and married pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim in the mid Sixties, and they appeared destined for mutual stardom, an ideal musical couple. The present recording is one of the fruits of that partnership. Unfortunately, her last public appearance would be in 1973 due to multiple sclerosis, her promising career ending shortly thereafter.

Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) wrote his Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104 rather late in life (1895), the work since becoming one of the most-popular cello concertos of all time. It's popularity has been so enduring that practically every major cellist in the world has recorded it, with the likes of Mstislav Rostropovich (DG), Yo-Yo Ma (Sony), Pierre Fournier (DG), Leonard Rose (Sony), Gregor Piatigorsky (RCA), Lynn Harrell (RCA), Pablo Casals (EMI and Dutton Labs), Paul Tortelier (EMI/Warner), Rafael Wallfisch (Chandos), Truls Mork (EMI/Warner), Maurice Gendron (Philips or HDTT), and Janos Starker (Mercury) heading up a lengthy list. Ms. du Pre's version, then, finds itself in heady company.

Because the concerto contains an abundance of attractive melodies, it gives the soloist and orchestra ample opportunity for displaying bravura, nuance, sensitivity, and a little sentimentality, all of which Ms. du Pre handles well, with her characteristic flair. Barenboim and the orchestra contribute to their parts with an equal zeal and enthusiasm.

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. Ms. du Pre plays it with the kind of spontaneous-appearing gusto we expect, yet it is not so brawny an interpretation as those of Gendron or Starker. It's a gentler kind of spirit that nonetheless captures the grand, robust vigor of Dvorak.

Jacqueline du Pre
After the strong start comes a slow, second-movement Adagio, which Dvorak wrote while his much-beloved sister-in-law lay dying, and he used one of her favorite pieces of music as a central theme. In it, he creates a lovely, explosively gentle, faintly melancholic mood, which should glide sweetly along like a slow-moving stream, wistfully, with a touch of sadness. Here, Ms. du Pre stands out from the crowd with a most-sensitive, sincere, evocative rendering.

In the Finale, we find more heroics and more pensiveness from both the soloist and the orchestra than we heard previously from them. Dvorak apparently wanted the soloist and orchestra to work on equal terms, and certainly du Pre, Barenboim, and the orchestra each contribute their fair share to the whole, producing a fittingly zesty yet reflective conclusion to the proceedings.

Accompanying the concerto is Dvorak's Silent Woods (1883), originally written for piano and later transcribed for cello and piano and then cello and orchestra. It's a beautifully sweet, lyrical piece, which I enjoyed immensely. Perhaps this is because the music so aptly suits the instrument, or perhaps it's because Ms. du Pre so appropriately expresses the meditative mood of the piece.

Producer Peter Andry and engineer Carson Taylor made the recording for EMI at the Medinah Temple, Chicago, Illinois in November 1970. Tohru Kotetsu remastered the recording for ARC at the JVC mastering Center, Japan, using the latest XRCD24/K2 processing for maximum fidelity CD playback.

A hallmark of the recording is its clarity. The orchestral sound is well detailed, but at the expense of some upper midrange hardness and brightness and some small lack of upper-bass warmth. (To be fair, this is a sound from the Chicago Symphony I've heard in other recordings, so it may be a condition of the orchestra and hall and not the recording.) Nevertheless, the new remastering sounds good and better than I have heard it. Then after that long introduction I mentioned earlier, the cello enters, and it's practically on top of us. The instrument sounds good, mind you--warm, mellow, and rich--just unnecessarily close and nothing like what one might hear in any real concert. What's more, the cello's entrance points up the wide dynamic range of the recording because it's quite a bit louder than the preceding orchestral preface.

Frankly, because I have never thought of the sound of this recording as audiophile material, I have to wonder why ARC/JVC chose to remaster it so meticulously. That said, for listeners who already enjoy the performance and want to hear it reproduced from the best possible source, the disc may be worth its asking price.

You can find ARC products at some of the best prices at Elusive Disc: http://www.elusivedisc.com/

JJP

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

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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.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa