Concert Review

Dvorak Cello Concerto in A major Steven Isserlis (Cello)/Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Jarvi Queen Elizabeth Hall, London 22 March 2000

One might think that as so many of the great composers were highly prolific there's little point in resurrecting another 'lost' work by one of them, especially if the composer himself has rejected the opus, or it's unfinished, or a student exercise. Dvorak's Cello Concerto in A major (1865) fits into all three of those categories, but that didn't dissuade the German composer and musicologist Gunter Raphael, in the 1920s, from unearthing it in the first place; and, what's more, abridging and orchestrating it.

But, yes, the great Cello Concerto of Dvorak in B minor of 1895 does have a predecessor. Dvorak's first two Symphonies were composed either side of his A major Cello Concerto, yet the orchestra plays no part in Dvorak's version (or rather 'plan') for his Concerto, which exists with piano accompaniment only; and, in sketch form, apparently runs to some eighty minutes in duration. What's more, Misha Donat in his OAE concert programme note asserts that the "orchestral contribution (or what in the composer's score constituted the piano part) is often devoid of interest". Still Raphael himself was unperturbed; and nor is cellist Steven Isserlis, a keen advocate of the piece, at least in the revamped and orchestrated version which he describes as: "More compact than the original, the cello part more lyrical, the form less experimental; Raphael's aim was to discipline this student work while preserving the essential spirit of Dvorak's first thoughts."

Well, enough of arguments and counter-arguments: what about the music? The ebbing and flowing slow movement is unquestionably the highlight, with the thematic material pleasantly varied and neatly shaped. With its Andante introduction, the opening Allegro attempts a profounder statement than it actually makes; whilst the rondo-like and Slavic finale motors along pleasantly enough. Certainly if the whole concoction is going to have a spokesman, it could do worse than Isserlis, who gave it an intense and committed reading, extracting every ounce of potential nuance with his customary finesse. As a last, slightly mind-boggling thought on the whole exercise, it occurred to me that the period-instrument Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment has probably never been called on to execute an orchestral score written as late as 1929 before: The Orchestra of the Age of Neo-Enlightenment?!

To my mind though, ultimately far more rewarding were the two pieces which framed the Dvorak/Raphael, both by Schumann - his remarkable Overture, Scherzo & Finale and the 1st Symphony (Spring). Up until the age of thirty Schumann concentrated almost exclusively on music for piano; then, remarkably, he embarked on an intense year of song. Thereafter his ambition soared further and he knocked off at breakneck speed the accomplished Symphony No.1 as well as the proto-symphonette, the Overture, Scherzo & Finale. Four years later, in 1845, he revised the latter; and it's a fine piece, deftly and transparently scored and with much thematic ingenuity on all fronts. Under Paavo Jarvi's questing baton, the OAE gave it a good reading too: this was no mere curtain-raiser. Equally riveting was the hard-driven account of the Spring. There are probably fewer more stirring experiences than hearing an energetic and on-form OAE go hell for leather at a piece like this symphony, in the up-front acoustic of the QEH (as opposed to it becoming marooned on modern instruments in the RFH). An obvious comparison is the acclaimed reading on DG by Sir John Eliot Gardiner, also driving along his Orchestra Revolutionnaire et Romantique - in my books, and especially as a 'live' event, Jarvi's powerful and finely played interpretation could withstand the comparison.

Duncan Hadfield

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