has always been considered a poor relation
to his two most famous concertos, those
for violin and cello (the last being
by far the most popular). Its ‘Cinderella’
reputation has not been helped by the
fact that no really major pianist has
championed the work in the concert hall,
and the fact that most general music
guides dismiss the piece as second-rate.
One very popular dictionary (which shall
be nameless) refers to it simply as
‘…a Beethoven-ish hybrid that never
really gets off the ground’. Well, the
author there ought to have been able
to hear this thrilling new recording,
which may just have changed that view.
As keen collectors
will know, it has had a couple of distinctive
interpretations on disc, the most well-known
being that of Sviatoslav Richter and
Carlos Kleiber from 1977, last heard
of on mid-price EMI. Even with such
distinctive personalities at work (too
distinctive?) the disc failed to get
the concerto into the mainstream. This
new Teldec performance has exactly the
right qualities to do just that. It
has bags of charisma, the sort of freshness
and lack of sentimentality we associate
with these artists, and superlative
playing from all concerned.
Actually, one can see
where the faults in the piece lie. The
first movement is way too long for its
material, and the ghosts of Beethoven
(particularly the Emperor) and
Brahms loom pretty large in places.
But this is
Dvořák, and we do get swept along
by the good-natured lyricism and innocent
infectiousness of the music.
Harnoncourt’s approach pays dividends
here; his no-nonsense tempo, sharply
defined rhythms and crisp ensemble articulation
are just what are needed to dispel any
doubts about quality. Aimard agrees
wholeheartedly, and clearly relishes
making something of the romantic rhetoric
in some passages. The soloist’s first
entry is a good case, where the ascending
thirds are beautifully graded towards
the climactic flourish (track 1, 2’06).
Even the horn’s clear anticipation of
the first subject of the New
World Symphony (track
1, 10’21) is not put into ‘neon lights’,
as could have been the case with less
subtle approaches. In short, it is all
so beautifully prepared and executed
without losing one jot of spontaneity.
The gorgeous slow movement,
with yet more hints of the New
World, is also played straight
but with great intensity, avoiding any
hint of cloying romantic indulgence.
Crisp phrasing from Aimard and a real
ear for the inner voices from Harnoncourt
make this possibly the most rewarding
movement on the disc. The artists are
also heard at full stretch in the allegro
con fuoco finale, with
its slavonic dance overtones. Again,
absolute rhythmic tautness and great
discipline (echoes of the Szell approach)
ensure superb results, with passion,
grace and fire in equal measure.
The filler, The
Noonday Witch, has been
available before on a disc devoted to
the late symphonic poems, but makes
a useful and welcome return here. Harnoncourt’s
darkly brooding interpretation, with
truly glorious string playing from the
Concertgebouw, is as good as any I’ve
encountered, and at nearly 30 minutes
is a substantial bonus.
The recording is rich
and detailed, though I’m slightly confused
as to which is ‘live’. The booklet says
it’s the concerto (which must have a
mightily quite audience) but the Noonday
Witch does have hints of ‘liveness’,
at least on headphones (shuffling, the
odd suppressed cough). Whatever the
case, the sound is splendid and no enjoyment
of these artists’ achievements is marred.
Definitely one for the Christmas stocking!