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If it’s the Czech works you’re after, do not hesitate

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Cello Concerto in b, op. 104 (1894/5)*
The Water Goblin, op. 107 (1896)
Carnival, op. 92 (1891)
Torleif Thedéen (violoncello)*
Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra/Kees Bakels
Rec. Dewan Filharmonik Petronas Hall, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; December 2001
BIS-CD-1276[69’18"]

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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 extra.

Christopher Howell


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