Please don’t be put-off by hearing a Taiwanese
orchestra and an American soloist performing
a romantic cello concerto by the Slavic composer Dvořák.
I used to hold a romantic ideal that only Russian orchestras
could play Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich,
only Austrian and German orchestras could play Mahler,
Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart and only English orchestras
could perform Elgar and Vaughan Williams. I now believe
that holding onto these blinkered principles only serves
to deprive the listener of many superbly performed works.
Although an orchestra may have a tradition of playing a
home-grown composer’s music it certainly
doesn’t have the monopoly
on delivering wonderful interpretations; in fact I am now
of the opinion that it doesn't matter a jot. Recent examples
of marvellous performances that I have heard on disc from
orchestras include Beethoven from Nashville, Tennessee,
Rimsky-Korsakov from Malaysia, Bernstein from New Zealand,
Barber from Scotland, J.S. Bach from Japan, Shostakovich
from Italy and Mahler and Shostakovich from Australia.
American cellist David Finckel and Taiwanese-born pianist
Wu Han are involved in wide-ranging musical activities,
both artistic and commercial. These include the privately
owned ArtistLed, classical music’s first musician-directed
and Internet-based recording company. I estimate that ArtistLed
have now released nine recordings, which includes their
acclaimed release of Beethoven’s complete works for cello
and piano and the recording of the Grieg and Chopin cello
sonatas with Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro; a particular
favourite disc of mine.
This new release of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto and
Augusta Read Thomas’s Ritual Incantation is ArtistLed’s
first orchestral release. The Dvořák is probably
the best known concerto in the whole cello répertoire and
Thomas’s Ritual Incantations, written especially
for David Finckel, is receiving its world premičre recording.
All the ArtistLed discs are available exclusively via the
company’s website at www.artistled.com so
there is no point looking in the usual commercial outlets.
By the early 1890s, Dvořák had become an acclaimed
composer whose fame had reached far beyond his native land.
In 1892, he received an offer to travel to the United States
from Mrs. Jeanette Thurber, the founder of the National
Conservatory of Music in New York. Dvořák turned down
Mrs. Thurber’s offer several times, but she was very persistent
and offered him $30,000 – an enormous amount of money at
the time – to come teach, perform and compose. Dvořák
eventually decided to take the offer, and from 1892 to
1895 he held the position of the director of the National
Conservatory in New York City. During his stay in America,
Dvořák composed several major works, including the ‘New
World’ and the ‘American’ Quartet. The
Cello Concerto, composed between November of 1894 and February
of 1895, was the last work he completed in the United States.
It is dedicated to Dvořák’s friend Hanus Wihan, the
founder and cellist of the Czech String Quartet, who asked
the composer to write a cello concerto numerous times.
The inspiration, however, came to Dvořák from another
musician – Victor Herbert, principal cellist of the Metropolitan
Opera Orchestra. When Dvořák heard Herbert perform
his own second Cello Concerto with the New York Philharmonic
in Brooklyn in 1894, he was so impressed with the way that
the composer balanced large orchestral forces and mellow
sounds of solo cello that he decided to start writing his
own Cello Concerto right away.
The Cello Concerto is the crowning item in that instrument’s
repertory, imperious for its characteristic richness and
eloquence. It is written in a traditional three-part structure.
The first movement, Allegro, opens with an ardent
orchestral introduction stating the principal theme. The
second theme, a melancholic melody sung by the French horn,
is one of the Dvořák’s most tender and moving tunes.
The solo cello enters in an improvisational manner with
a restating of the main theme, which becomes a backbone
of the masterful development section. In recapitulation,
the two themes are reversed in order, so the second theme
returns first, and the main melody follows in a brilliant
conclusion marked grandioso.
The second movement, Adagio ma non troppo, opens
in a serene lyrical mood, which is suddenly interrupted
by the full orchestral tutti. In the heart of the
middle section is a melody of the Dvořák’s song, “Leave
Me Alone,” sung by the solo cello. The Finale, allegro
moderato, is a rondo featuring several alternating
themes, rhythmic or lyrical. The dance-like fast sections
sparkle with finger-breaking virtuosity while the slower
episodes are filled with some of the work’s most heartfelt
singing lines. But perhaps the most amazing part of the
whole Concerto is the final coda. Described by Dvořák, “The
Finale closes gradually diminuendo, like a sigh, with reminiscences
of the first and second movements - the solo dies down
to pianissimo, then swells again, and the last bars are
taken up by the orchestra and the whole concludes in a
In the Cello Concerto David Finckel expertly balances
security of control with weight of expression, in a commanding
performance of nobility and rapt concentration. He avoids
any temptation for self indulgence, without any hints of
over-affection. In this highly impressive and characterful
interpretation, he conveys the message with power and directness.
In the opening movement, right from the first entry of
the cello with the first subject at 03.30 (track 1), Finckel
demonstrates an impressive strength and directness of expression;
qualities that he maintains throughout the score. The great
second theme, first heard in the cello at 05.33, is played
with a rapt beauty. I especially enjoyed Finckel’s’ interpretation
of the pianissimo section at 05.32 which is played
with rapt beauty. Unlike virtually every rival version
Finckel avoids drawing out the tempo.
In Finckel’s hands the Adagio non troppo is an
intensely emotional experience, the wistful song-like melodies
are played with beauty and refined tenderness. In the final
movement there is an exciting bite to Finckel’s compelling
playing. From the opening bars of the fiery orchestral
introduction of the opening allegro to the tempestuous
conclusion of the allegro moderato, Finale Felix
Chen conducts with impressive authority. I believe it would
be difficult to know that the listener wasn’t hearing one
of the world’s best known orchestras.
There are many fine recordings of the Dvořák concerto.
In spite of the exceptionally strong competition this 2003
Taipei account from David Finckel on Artistled is very
special and goes to the top of my list. The main competitor
to Finckel is the consistently feted and award winning
1969 Berlin account from Rostropovich with the Berlin Phil
under Karajan on Deutsche Grammophon 447
Rostropovich in his prime and for its feeling of spontaneity,
stunning virtuosity and strength of melodic integrity the
recording deserves its high status. I am also fond of the intense and moving
performance from Jacqueline
du Pré with Sergiu Celibidache and the Swedish RSO on Teldec
8573-85340-2. The nobility and lyricism of the account
from Pierre Fournier with the Berlin
Philharmonic Orchestra under George Szell on Deutsche Grammophon 439
484-2 is also notable.
The composer Augusta Read Thomas was born in 1964 in
New York and she is currently a Professor of Music at Northwestern
University. She is also Composer-in-Residence with the
Chicago Symphony Orchestra until 2006. She studied at Northwestern
University, with Alan Stout and Bill Karlins; at Yale University,
with Jacob Druckman; and at the Royal Academy of Music
Thomas is known as a passionate and highly original
voice among American composers. Her influences come not
only from the world of music (Bach, Berio, Boulez, Byrd,
Debussy, Knussen, Mahler, Messiaen, Varčse, and Webern
among them), but also from literature, especially poetry.
In a November 2001 essay, musicologist Seth Brodsky argues
that the poetic idea of image offers insight into Thomas’s
compositional art. Various images, the sun, light, the
voice, song, bells and stars run through her works.
Composed in 1999 in response to a commission by Thomas
van Straaten, Ritual Incantations was premičred
by David Finckel and the Aspen Music Festival Chamber Orchestra
under Hugh Wolff the same year. The three movement score
gives directions to orchestra, soloist, and conductor all
of which reflect the images that define the spiritual world
that Thomas seeks to convey in her music:-
I: Majestic; driving and persistent; cantabile
II: Mysterious and expansive; longing; yearning
III: Spirited; passionate, bold and lyrical
Throughout the work’s 13 minute duration the solo cello
is featured, at times with impassioned cadenza passages,
and at other times with more reflective material. In all
cases the cello sings long, generous and earnest cantabile lines.
We are informed by the composer that the cello soloist
along with the concerto group made up of solo flute, solo
oboe and solo violin – all seated at the front of the orchestra
- initiate and produce all the musical communication. Ritual Incantations has passionate, urgently seductive and compelling qualities
of often complex but logical nature, allied to sensuous
Finckel offers the ingredients of vitality, passion
and risk that provide an enthralling performance throughout
the score’s ‘musical landscapes’. Well supported by conductor
and orchestra, his playing is both brilliant and dedicated.
I especially enjoyed Finckel’s performance of the central
movement where the Mysterious and expansive; longing;
yearning imagery is evocative and convincingly portrayed
with considerable concentration.
I am a great admirer of the playing of David Finckel
and Hu Wan and I
have been fortunate to have attended a live recital in
my home town in the North of England in 2005 where the
husband and wife partnership gave a superb performance
of the Chopin. Finckel had, in fact, just completed a recital
tour in Scotland as a member of the Emerson String Quartet.
It would be thrilling if the enterprising duo, on their
ArtistLed record company, would now turn their attention
to some of the many excellent cello sonatas by British
composers, such as, Bridge, Delius, Moeran, Rubbra, Bax,
Parry, Hurlstone, Foulds and those from Stanford. Furthermore
I would love to hear these forces record one of the cello
concertos from say Elgar, Finzi, Walton, Delius, Moeran,
Bax or Bliss.
The liner-notes to the release are first class. The
engineers have provided high quality sound, being especially
vivid and well balanced.
Finckel performs one of the finest accounts of the Dvořák Cello
Concerto ever recorded. I urge you to hear it. A
certainty for one of my ‘Records of the Year’.