Although I am well aware that Kees Bakels’ recordings
include a rare opera by Mascagni as well as the lion’s share of a cycle
of the Vaughan Williams symphonies some of which have been highly praised,
this is my first encounter with him. He has been music director of the
Malaysian Philharmonic since its foundation in 1997 (it gave its inaugural
concert in August 1998) and his gifts as an orchestra builder would
seem to be considerable.
In many ways a work like
Dvořák’s “Water Goblin” is a harder test than an outright showpiece
like the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra, for its transparent textures
reveal all. In the present case the orchestra is revealed as having
a fine array of wind and brass players, effective both within
the ensemble and in their solo opportunities as well as a cultured,
smooth-toned string section. They do not attain that particular vibrancy
which we associate with the Czech Philharmonic in this music, but it
is questionable whether the Czech Philharmonic today has this quality
either. It is also at least possible that the particular quality which
so thrilled us on early Supraphon LPs was a product of shrill, distorted
recording and the full-blooded acoustics of the Rodolfinium, as much
as of the playing itself. But one tries not to think these things …
The recording here is extremely refined, yet lacks
nothing in impact. I thought at the beginning of "Water Goblin"
that Bakels was going to be a little rigid, not inflecting the music
as the best native Czech conductors can, but I quickly came to feel
only admiration for his poetic response to some
of Dvořák’s most evocative tone-painting as well as the orchestra’s
evident appreciation of the music. At the same time he keeps the potentially
sprawling structure tightly under control. I shall not throw away Talich
or Chalabala but I shall be happy to hear this when I want a
more modern recording.
Finer still is “Carnival”
where Bakels succeeds, as few since Ančerl have, in giving full
vitality and bustle to the opening. He does this without pulling out
all the dynamic stops, which are rightly reserved for the end. The central
meditation is done with much poetry. The booklet-note writer makes the
interesting claim that the cor anglais ostinato with which this section
begins is a quotation from Dvořák’s own Requiem. Is this the writer’s
idea or does he have evidence that the resemblance was intentional?
It’s true that that the four-note figure is similar to the motto which
opens the Requiem, but shorn of the syncopated rhythm it has there it
seems more of a passing coincidence than an actual quotation.
It may seem odd to start a review of a recording of
the most famous of cello concertos with a discussion of the fillers.
The trouble is that, while Thedéen unquestionably plays very
well, there is not that something-or-other which makes it impossible
for you to look the other way while he is playing, a quality which Rostropovich,
for example, has in abundance. Also, I feel he relaxes his tempi too
easily and loses sight of the structure, particularly in the first movement.
Bakels has shown, in his treatment of the horn melody in the orchestra
introduction, how it is possible to relax and let the theme flower without
losing momentum, but when Thedéen takes up this same melody,
not only does he relax the tempo even more but he holds onto certain
notes expressively in a way which might mean a lot to him, but I’m not
sure if he persuades the listener to go all the way with him. And that
from an admirer of Rostropovich! you will say. Well, yes, but the Rostropovich
performance I admire is the one he made with Boult in the late 1950s.
In a way the all-too-famous Rostropovich/Karajan recording
marked a watershed in the interpretation of this concerto, for here
was the world’s greatest cellist (in the opinion of both musicians and
public) and the world’s greatest conductor (in the opinion of many,
especially Herr von Karajan himself) smothering the piece with expressive
maulings and generally acting as one should not in front of the children.
It would be an exaggeration to say that, with this example to lead the
way, there hasn’t been a decent performance
of poor Dvořák’s beautiful concerto since, but it sometimes seems
like it. And yet back in the 1950s, with Boult keeping a watchful eye
on the symphonic structure, Rostropovich had shown just how charisma,
expressive freedom and musical discipline can be combined. This
is a stereo recording and still sounds well, particularly the cello,
at least on my LP pressing. Earlier still Rostropovich made a fabled
version with Vacláv Talich which alas I’ve never heard. I also
suggest that those who hold rights over Westminster recordings might
take a look at the Antonio Janigro/Dean Dixon version; memory suggests
that it is the only one in my experience to avoid the rabble-rousing
accelerando at the end which even Boult concedes.
So where does this leave Thedéen? Well, it’s
a very nice version and you won’t go seriously wrong if you buy it,
but nor does it have that something extra which it needs to enter such
a competitive arena. Unless, of course, excellent versions of "Water
Goblin" and "Carnival" constitute, for you, that something