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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


RECORDING OF THE MONTH

 

AVAILABILITY 

Aristled

Cello Classics New and Old
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104 (1894-95) [37.44]
Augusta Read THOMAS (b. 1964)
Ritual Incantation for cello and chamber orchestra, (1999) [13.25]
David Finckel (cello)
Taipei Symphony Orchestra/Felix Chiu-Sen Chen
rec. October 2003, ChungShan Hall, Taipei, Taiwan. DDD
ARTISTLED [51.10]


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 stormy mood.”
 
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 447 413-2. With 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 in London.

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 sonic profiles.
 
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’.
 
Michael Cookson
 

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