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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in B minor, Op. 104 (1894-95) [38:15]
Serenade for Winds in D minor, Op. 44 (1878) [24:14]
Nina Kotova (cello) (op. 104 only)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Andrew Litton
rec. Air Lyndhurst Studios, London, England (No date given). DDD
SONY CLASSICAL 82876821182 [62:44]



This is an excellent release from Russian cellist Nina Kotova. The artwork includes three photographs displaying the glamorous Kotova in the same blatant way that RCA Victor Red Seal promoted cellist Ofra Harnoy in the 1980s. I was fascinated to discover whether the standard of Kotova’s playing matches her slick marketing. The good news is that her fine playing more than equals her penchant for lip gloss and haute couture. Evidently Kotova, a former cello, piano and composition pupil at the Moscow Conservatoire, turned her back on a modelling career, swapping the catwalk for the cello. From a family background of musicians and scientists the talented cellist, now in her mid-thirties, is also a composer of several works for the cello, notably her two concertos from 2000 and 2005.

The choice of the Dvořák Cello Concerto may be predictable to showcase a star soloist but the inclusion of the Serenade for Winds, in which Kotova doesn’t play, proves to be less obvious but still valuable.

By the early 1890s, Dvořák had become an acclaimed composer whose fame reached far beyond his native land. In 1892 he received an offer to travel to the United States from Mrs. Jeannette Thurber, the founder of the National Conservatory of Music in New York. He turned down the offer several times, but the persistent Mrs. Thurber offered him $30,000, an enormous amount of money at the time, to come to teach, perform and compose. Dvořák eventually agreed and from 1892 to 1895 held the position as director of the National Conservatory in New York City. During his stay he composed several major works, including the Symphony No. 9 ‘New World’ and the ‘American’ String Quartet. The Cello Concerto, Op. 104, composed between November of 1894 and February of 1895, was the last work he completed in the United States.

The Concerto has been described as the crowning glory in that instrument’s repertory. It is in a traditional three-part structure and is dedicated to Dvořák’s friend and cellist Hanus Wihan. Dvořák’s inspiration came from Victor Herbert, the composer and principal cellist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, whom Dvořák had heard perform his own second Cello Concerto with the New York Philharmonic in Brooklyn in 1894.

In the opening Allegro Kotova displays considerable control playing the noble first theme with striking vigour (3:44-4:05) and the contrasting second theme with yearning tenderness (5:44-6:44). I was impressed how flawlessly and effortlessly she accelerates the pace at 7:11-8:03. The cello plays almost continuously in the Adagio with Kotova adopting a relaxed tempo for music that is often hushed, yet, without ever feeling laboured. One senses a slight degree of unease from the soloist in the arduous singing line at 3:33-4:19. In the Finale a thoughtful, yet engaging approach is taken; more restrained than heroic. Performing the closing measures with high concentration Kotova brings home to an exciting and satisfying conclusion. Under Andrew Litton the unfailingly supportive Philharmonia are colourful and fresh with an especially delightful woodwind contribution.

There are many fine recordings of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto and the competition is exceptionally strong. I will play Kotova’s account often, however, my two benchmarks remain those from David Finckel and the Taipei Symphony Orchestra under Felix Chiu-Sen Chen on the ArtistLed label and Mstislav Rostropovich with the Berlin Philharmonic under Karajan on Deutsche Grammophon.

I am a staunch admirer of Finckel’s winning account which I made my joint 2006 Record of the Year. Recorded in 2003 at the ChungShan Hall, Taipei in Taiwan the disc is available from Finckel’s own label www.artistled.com. Finckel expertly balances security of control with weight of expression in a commanding performance of nobility and rapt concentration. The high quality sound, being especially vivid and well balanced, adds to the attraction of the ArtistLed disc.

The award-winning 1969 Berlin account from Mstislav Rostropovich on Deutsche Grammophon 447 413-2 has been the market leader for some time. Rostropovich is caught in his prime and the spontaneity, stunning virtuosity and strength of melodic integrity of this recording commands its high status.

Worthy of note is the intense and moving performance from Jacqueline du Pré with Sergiu Celibidache and the Swedish RSO on Teldec 8573-85340-2 and also the nobility and lyricism of the account from Pierre Fournier with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under George Szell on Deutsche Grammophon 439 484-2.

Dvořák wrote two Serenades, one for String Orchestra in E major, Op.22 in 1875 and the later Serenade for Winds in D minor, Op. 44. The four movement Wind Serenade is undoubtedly one Dvořák’s finest works; although it is often overlooked. Scored for two oboes; two clarinets; two bassoons; contrabassoon; three horns, cello and double-bass, the work is strongly influenced by the serenades of Mozart, reminding me of the older style of a cassation. Composed in just two weeks in 1878 the Wind Serenade was given much praise at its première at the Žofín on Slavonic island in the Vltava river at Prague. Notable for its discernable and frequent use of Czech folk music it has a fresh open air quality bearing a close affinity to the type of score encountered for street performance on a summer’s evening.

We might assume that Kotova is playing the cello in the Serenade – although the booklet does not say so - but enquiries to her agency have revealed that she is not involved. The wind band of twelve players consist of members of the Philharmonia. What is clear, however, is that the ensemble provide a beautiful mellifluous account that can compete with the finest available versions. The opening movement Moderato is bright and breezy and in the Minuetto, a type of Czech Ländler, I was impressed by the joyous and good humoured playing. The mysteriously nocturnal Andante con moto movement is performed with real allure. The final Allegro molto, with its Bohemian Polka spirit, is played with galloping exuberance.

My leading version of the Wind Serenade is the passionate and refined performance from the Virtuosi di Praga under Oldřich Vlček. This was recorded in Prague in 1993 on Discover International DICD 920135 (c/w Serenade for Strings, Op. 22 and Miniatures, Op. 74a). I still have fond recollections of the first version that I owned on 33rpm vinyl from the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields under Neville Marriner from 1981 on Philips 6514 145; now available on compact disc Philips 400 020-2 (c/w Serenade for Strings, Op. 22).

Sony has provided a decent sound quality, although the playing catches a slightly bright edge in the forte passages of the Serenade. The release has the benefit of helpful booklet notes from Joanna Wyld. This is a really fine performance of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto that demonstrates that the glamorous Nina Kotova is a player of real substance. The Wind Serenade makes an attractive coupling.


Michael Cookson

 


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