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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Cello Concerto in B minor, Op 104, Symphony no. 7 in D minor, Op 70.
Frans Helmerson (cello) Gothenberg SO/ Neeme Järvi (Concerto)
Myung-Whun Chung (Symphony)
Rec Gothenberg, 1990s DDD
BIS-CD-300245 [77'29"]


There is absolutely no doubt that Dvořák's B Minor Cello Concerto is the greatest cello concerto of them all, although I have a soft spot for his Cello Concerto in A. The B minor puts all other cello concertos in the shade. It is so well written, magnificently orchestrated, replete with every musical emotion without being corny, and possessing both a splendour devoid of pomposity and some of the most moving music you will ever hear. The Dvořák has a rich variety of rhythmic contrast, colour and direction.

The cello is often portrayed as a dreamy and overtly romantic instrument. And it is true that some composers could not write for it. Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations sometimes used the instrument as if it were the sweating horse about to win the 3.30 at Newmarket and this makes the cello ugly with a sound like an angry bee trapped in a match box.

What Dvořák succeeds in doing is realising the true characteristics of the cello. He judges everything so well.

Rostropovich said it was flawlessly written. Pierre Fournier could find nothing wrong with it. Tortelier referred to it as sublime and unequalled in the cellist's repertoire. Maurice Gendron lived every bar when he played it and how well he played it!

When I first heard it I was completely smitten. It is one of the handful of works that I regard as truly great. It speaks to me and it always delights. I have so many recordings of it including radio broadcasts and such a broadcast includes one by Janos Starker and that is by far the best. Rostropovich with Sargent is a very fine performance.

Jacqueline DuPré's performances of this concerto were self-indulgent and nauseous as if she were wringing out every drop from an almost dry flannel. The work must not be sentimentalised or dragged. The drama and emotion is already there in the music. It does not need any further input.

There are great disadvantages in both knowing a work so well and loving it so much in that you find every little indiscretion or minor imperfection and foolishly expect perfection.

This is a very good performance from soloist and orchestra but the performance is somewhat individualistic and that is certainly not a bad thing if it makes sense. I feel the soloist lingers over phrases particularly in the first movement and his performance lacks some authority. Sometimes the music sounds so mercurially smooth that it seems unnatural. Therefore it loses its passion and spontaneity. Some of the forte orchestral entries are too sudden and explosive as if someone has accidentally and incorrectly turned up the volume and rushed to turn it down again. It gives the music a certain vulgarity. I miss the timpanist making something of the tragic heartbeats particularly just before the end of the finale. He seems to be in another room.

At a Promenade Concert last week Stephen Hough gave a splendid account of Brahms' superb Piano Concerto no. 1 with an orchestra from Budapest under Ivan Fischer. Apart from some truly splendid piano playing what enhanced the performance was the vigour and total involvement of the orchestral playing - sometimes very rugged and vital. The orchestra in this performance is not like that. It is competent but not quite involved!

The Seventh Symphony is given a sometimes-good performance. I have admired the conducting of Myung-Whun Chung for many years. His performance of Nielsen's Second Symphony is a must-have. In this symphony he does many things well, capturing some, but not all, of the pastoral and tragic moments to perfection however somehow it does not hang together. I listened to Bryden Thomson and then Istvan Kertesz and could hear what was missing in Chung's performance but to define the missing feature is almost impossible. I can only advance the notion that Chung does not capture the earthiness of the music. I do not like his loitering speed in the slow movement which makes the music sound like Mahler - the inconsequential Mahler of his Fourth Symphony. I listened to Vaclav Neumann in this movement and revelled in the rustic sounds and the convincing performance. As it is a Czech symphony should it sound Czech? But then how does Czech music sound?

Chung loses his way in the slow movement, the poco adagio, in what results in a tedious performance. The scherzo is one of those glorious warm summer day rustic pieces which Dvořák excelled at. Chung lacks drive and vitality. Listen to Kertesz who is certainly not pedestrian. Ormandy with the Philadelphia gets its right. Chung lingers over the trio section. In fact he never gets into top gear. On the other hand he brings out orchestral detail and some exquisite playing but if the true character is to be sacrificed for beauty, I suggest something is wrong. His entry into the repeat of the scherzo is staggering but his subsequent lingering tempi try the patience. This is not the Dvořák I know and love, but, alas, rather a stranger. And so to the finale, one of the most exciting in romantic symphonic literature. The introduction lacks the sinister darkness and shrill howling woodwind. The timpani entry into the main allegro is startling but the tempi is too cautious and, at times, it plods. Chung realises his mistake and speeds up but the music sounds too clinical. The music succumbs to a slower pace and the transition is not well handled. It is a patchwork-quilt performance. And yet for all these criticisms the playing is exemplary but it is more from a beautifully polished and oiled machine than from the heart.

Chung's performance is stop and start and lacks cohesion. But he has some tremendous moments! The rustic passages do not skip innocently but the horns tower in glorious majesty! And the final storm is breathtaking with wonderful orchestral screams and a power that is unequalled! Great stuff! But do we buy a recording just for the supremacy of the last 45 seconds?

David Wright

 



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