> Antonin Dvorak - Walter Susskind [JW]: Classical Reviews- March 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Antonin DVORAK (1841-1904)
Piano Concerto *
Violin Concerto +
Cello Concerto #
Romance for Violin and Orchestra +
Mazurek for Violin and Orchestra +
Silent Woods
Rondo for Cello and Orchestra
Rudolf Firkusny, piano *
Ruggiero Ricci, violin +
Zara Nelsova, cello #
Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra/Walter Susskind
No recording locations or dates provided
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 99763 [2 CDs 129.50]


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These are performances licensed from Vox and made, I would guess, in the early to mid seventies. Their appearance in a single budget price set, with notes about the works but nothing about performers or dates, is nevertheless welcome and the hero of the discs is Walter Susskind. It’s often forgotten that Susskind was born in Prague, in 1913, and studied in an essentially Austro-Czech tradition; with Josef Suk from 1928-33 and as a piano student of George Szell, then a prominent visitor to Prague until the events in continental Europe forced him to turn first to Britain and then, eventually, to America. In these Dvorak performances his great gifts as accompanist to elite soloistic talents is abundantly evident – he was one of the great concerto conductors of his generation – and the soloists respond in diverse ways, emotional, technical, expressive to the differing demands of the concertos.

In the best known, the concerto for Cello, the soloist is Canadian Zara Nelsova, student of Barbirolli and Herbert Walenn amongst others. As a youthful member of the Canadian Trio, with the eminent partnership of pianist (and conductor) Sir Ernest MacMillan and Auer-pupil violinist Kathleen Parlow, Nelsova had a richly experienced background in chamber and solo work and experience, moreover, with musicians considerably older than she and from whom she learned much. She brings to the concerto remarkably sensitive qualities of intimacy and control. Susskind’s opening tutti allows us to hear the leanly focused tone of the fine St Louis Orchestra. It’s a fleet but not inflexible opening and presages the performance to come; incipient tension is conveyed through taut phrasing, with Susskind alive to the orchestral superstructure. Nelsova’s entry is disciplined and her articulation precise in passagework. Some staccato playing may not be to all tastes but hers is a remarkably cohesive and musical traversal of the first movement with tempo relationships firmly established and flexibility sought within them and not imposed upon them. If you are an admirer of Rostropovich and Karajan in this work you will find Nelsova undemonstrative and cool; if you have heard and like the Du Pré and Celibidache performance, one of almost Brucknerian stasis, you will find Nelsova and Susskind too fast and unyielding. I find Nelsova and Susskind immeasurably superior to either. Listen for example to the desolate passage for cello in the first movement with the flute’s ghostly counter-theme and how Susskind has so adroitly worked on the string tone colouring in the preceding tutti to prepare the ground for Nelsova’s entry here. True, the drama isn’t so opulently expressive as it can be but this is a genuinely musical performance, alive and understanding. We can appreciate Nelsova’s nicely equalized tone in the second movement and it’s here that her chamber music instincts are most evident – phrasal sagacity, the rise and fall of her rubato, her interplay with orchestral solos. To some this phrasing may seem matter-of-fact but to me this unwillingness to emote, the refusal to indulge self-pity, is not a limitation but an architecturally acute understanding of the work’s trajectory in which the finale’s musing of the second movement is the crux. Susskind’s woodwind are impressive here as elsewhere. Maybe Nelsova’s phrasing at 7’50 here seems somewhat metrical, shorn of inflexion, but she is saving it up for the passage at 8’04 where the transitional passage receives perfectly judged rubato from the soloist. The finale begins with a firm but not over forceful opening with the scurrying passages as Czech as I’ve ever heard from a non-Czech orchestra. There is much subtle flexibility in phrasing and equally so in matters of tone and dynamics – listen to the oboe and clarinet figures with their admixture of affective plangency. The reminiscence of the second movement, as will have become obvious by now, is well prepared and there is no self-indulgence, no easy gestures, no heart-on-sleeve emoting. Instead there is a steady sense of the music’s skeletal material and the finale emerges as less sectional and disruptive as it so frequently can in the hands of more indulgent cellists. As I hope I’ve made clear I admire Nelsova’s performance. No one will throw away Casals and Szell, or Rostropovich with Boult and Talich (don’t bother with the Karajan or Giulini) or Gendron or Fournier or others. But you will gain a great understanding of the work’s strength and meaning when you listen to Nelsova and Susskind and much more besides.

The textual problems surrounding the Piano Concerto, whilst not as complex as matters Brucknerian, are still fairly murky. Wilem Kurz’s edition is published in the complete Dvorak edition and Firkusny studied with Kurz. This was the pianist’s third recording of the Concerto and he had moved steadily away from simple Kurz to more a mélange of Dvorak-Kurz but with the former predominant. Much admired by Horowitz, Firkusny was the ideal champion of this under appreciated work. His triumphant and limpid passagework animates the first movement’s Brahmsian moments effortlessly mitigating some of the more discursive passages at a tempo rather quicker than that of Sviatoslav Richter who recorded the concerto, with Carlos Kleiber in the original edition, at around the same time as Firkusny. As they had for Nelsova the St Louis Orchestra are equally attentive here; there is a sheen on the violin tone and a quick responsiveness to their soloist that is admirable. There is some really memorable and blistering passagework in the central section of the first movement from Firkusny and listen at 10.50 to the strutting and braying trumpets (good dynamics too) as they blaze the orchestral material onwards. Firkusny’s phrasing meanwhile is the perfect mixture of affectionate lyricism and aristocratic control – the restatement of the opening theme is superbly passionate in his hands and magnificently delineated leading to a cadenza of seemingly limitless finesse, with lines brought out, architectural integrity maintained and a virtuoso technique put to the service of musical argument. In the slow movement I defy you not to find his treble lines of such limpid beauty that you will despair of hearing them played as well again. Yet the underlying momentum is always there, the impulse to linger firmly controlled and Firkusny’s variance of repeated material on the highest level of musical understanding. In the finale the often-criticised passagework comes alive in the soloist’s hands. Reflective, imitative, fascinating – it is extraordinary to listen to Firkusny extracting such a rich vein of meaning from a score so frequently derided. Susskind meanwhile, ever alert and ever superb, restrains the burgeoning con fuoco, vesting it with the chirping woodwind properly brought out and now leading, now following the piano’s line. Closely related thematically to the second of the three op 45 Slavonic Rhapsodies this is a real Czech dance, sprightly and confident, and leads to a tremendously effective conclusion sustained with heroic brio to the very end by Firkusny and Susskind.

Don’t be confused by the typo on the CD box. Even Ruggiero Ricci can’t play the Violin Concerto in 20.03, though doubtless he could if he wanted to. His is a characteristically febrile, coiled and intense performance of a work that has received a number of admirable recordings in recent years. It wasn’t Ricci’s first attempt either, as he’d earlier taped it with Malcolm Sargent, regrettably a performance not currently available. Susskind shapes the bass lines of the orchestral tutti in the first movement with effortless skill; there is crisp articulation and a flexible approach to rhythm but Ricci’s passagework can be brusque and aggressive and his phrasing a little prosaic. At 10.02 his playing in the higher positions is excellently maintained and affectionately so but elsewhere I found him oversentimentalized in phrasing and tone and his characteristically intense vibrato – powerfully individualized though it may be - as rather too violently oscillatory for a work of this kind. He is far more successful at conveying the folk passage in the finale from 4’15 and in the real head-of-steam finale built up by Susskind. A useful and individual performance to have but vintage performances – Prihoda, Suk, and more recently Perlman – are unchallenged.

To complete the pleasure of this attractively priced box there are four well-known miniatures, two each for cello and violin and they reflect entirely the characteristics of the two soloists – Nelsova adroit and Ricci feverish.

Jonathan Woolf

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