To begin, a brief explanation about the title of the first work on this CD. This is the first recording of the Cello Concerto in B minor I have seen which refers to it as “Concerto no. 2”. In 1865, some thirty years before the B minor work, Dvorák wrote a Cello Concerto in A major. He left the accompaniment of this work as a piano part, but this was subsequently orchestrated by other hands. It was published and has been recorded as the Concerto for cello and orchestra in A major. This work, however, has not gained anywhere near the popularity of the B minor concerto, and for most people the latter remains ‘the Dvorák Cello Concerto’. I will refer to it as the Cello Concerto in B minor.
This recording couples a familiar masterpiece, Dvorák’s Cello Concerto in B minor, with a much less often heard Dvorák concerto, the Piano Concerto in G minor. Having both on one disc is convenient, and with Russian and Czech performers an authentic approach seems guaranteed. Unfortunately the recorded sound varies from indifferent to uncomfortable. Given that superior performances of both works are available, this disc is really not recommendable.
With the Elgar Concerto in E minor, the Dvorák Cello Concerto in B minor is probably the most popular cello concerto in the repertoire. From the opening motto theme, this work overflows with memorable tunes, orchestrated with great skill. It was written in 1894 and 1895, while Dvorák was director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York. Like the Symphony no. 9 in E minor, op 95, and the ‘American’ String Quartet, op. 96, which were also written during this period, the concerto is suffused with the composer’s longing for his homeland. A still more personal note is struck in the second movement, which quotes one of Dvorák’s songs ‘Leave me alone’, a favourite of his beloved sister-in law Josefina. Dvorák learned of her death as he was revising the finale, and the song theme recurs in the meditative coda that occurs near the end of this movement.
Mstislav Rostropovich recorded the Dvorák Concerto in B minor more than any other work in his extensive repertoire. I remember reading that, towards the end of his career, he would charge many times his usual fee if requested to play this concerto. I got to know this work through his 1957 stereo recording with Adrian Boult; subsequently he recorded it with Carlo Maria Giulini in 1977 and Herbert von Karajan the following year. There are also versions with Ozawa (1985) and Khaikin (also 1957).
From the beginning the recording sounds a little raw; the horn solo is more recessed than in Rostropovich’s recording with the Berlin Philharmonic and Karajan, and the dynamic range is not as wide. Rostropovich’s opening phrase sounds more deliberate than in the Berlin recording, something that is characteristic of this performance throughout. Rostropovich’s partnership with Talich is workmanlike, but does not display the relaxed rapport he seemed to have with Karajan. There are many felicities: the solo line in the second movement is lovingly shaped, and there is a feeling of release at the coda of this movement. Things pick up in the finale, which generates more excitement than the previous movements. As a whole, however, the performance with Karajan has more freedom and abandon, and is much better recorded. This is currently available at mid-price on Deutsche Grammophon Originals (4474132), coupled with the Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations. For my money the DG remains one of the best recordings of this concerto.
Woody Allen was asked if, given the chance, he would do anything differently in his life. He replied that he would do everything he had done the first time, except that he wouldn’t bother reading Beowulf. In similar vein, given a second chance, I’m not sure I would bother listening to the Dvorák Piano Concerto. It was written in 1876, for Karel Slavkosky, who had given the premiere of the Piano Quintet no. 1 in 1872. Parts of it recall the Beethoven Concerto no. 4, others sound like Tchaikovsky and Brahms. The piano writing is not very idiomatic. Contemporary criticism held that Dvorák had written a part for two right hands, and the solo was revised by Vilém Kurz. Generally this work lacks the warmth and the personal inspiration of the Cello Concerto. Parts of it seem to stop and start again for no perceptible reason; I feel this stems from the fact that Dvorák was writing a piano concerto in order to be taken seriously as a composer.
The present recording does it few favours. The sound is noticeably more raw than in its Cello Concerto partner; the upper strings and brass in particular often distort on loud passages. Frantisek Maxián is a capable soloist, and the orchestra plays well, with the exception of a Soviet era-sounding horn solo in the second movement. While it is a pleasant enough way of passing half an hour or so, there is no shortage of Romantic piano concertos superior to this. If you must have a Dvorák Piano Concerto, the 1977 recording with Sviatoslav Richter and Carlos Kleiber with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra is far superior and actually makes the work sound interesting. This, coupled with Richter’s excellent Wanderer Fantasy, is available in the Great Recordings of the Century series on EMI Classics 5 66895 2.
[You should note that these self-same 1950s recordings were also issued in 2005 as volume 5 of Supraphon’s Talich Edition (SU 385-2) though whether in superior transfers I do not know. RB]
See also review by Rob Barnett