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CD & Download: Pristine Audio

Antonin DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104 (1895) [39:37]
Nicolai MIASKOVSKY (1881-1950)
Cello Concerto, Op. 66 (1945) [28:01]
Mstislav Rostropovich (cello)
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Václav Talich (Dvořák)
rec. 19 June 1952, Prague
Philharmonia Orchestra/Malcolm Sargent (Miaskovsky)
rec. 5 March 1956

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Antonin DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104 (1895) [40:03]
Ernst von DOHNÁNYI (1877-1960)
Konzertstück, Op. 12 (1904) [24:12]
Raphael Wallfisch (cello)
London Symphony Orchestra/Charles Mackerras
rec. 4-5 July 1988, Church of St Jude-on-the-Hill, London
CHANDOS CHAN10715X [64:17]
Experience Classicsonline

Nailing my colours firmly to the mast, and taking into account works by Elgar, Shostakovich and so many others, I believe that Dvořák’s is the finest, and certainly the most beautiful, of all cello concertos. My favourite recorded performance is that by Mstislav Rostropovich and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Karajan, recorded in 1968, though I know that this is a reading that can polarise opinions. In any event, it is impossible to have too many versions of this glorious work in a record collection, and here are two more that I am delighted to add to mine.
The difference between the two Rostropovich performances is evident from the opening tutti. Where Karajan is expansive, generous and romantic, Talich is taut and dramatic, moving forward impulsively. He doesn’t linger when the music rises and broadens shortly before the soloist’s entry, but still moves the music on with a passion. Rostropovich matches his playing to the vision of the conductor, just as he did twenty-six years later, to a very different vision, in Berlin. His first, declamatory solo is marvellously dramatic and commanding, and these are adjectives that could apply to the movement as a whole. There are moments of repose of course, and when he arrives at the gorgeous second subject he slows down considerably, and rather more than Talich had done in the orchestral introduction. The notorious upward scale in octaves is sensational from Rostropovich; it could scarcely be otherwise from this astonishing virtuoso. He makes his cello sing as it were from the heart, and the tone is characteristically wiry and alive. As for the orchestra, don’t expect the burnished browns of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra: the strings are as brilliant and piercing as trumpets. The minor key interludes in the slow movement come over as passionate statements of national pride, and Rostropovich’s tone in those passages where Dvořák cannot bear to leave his themes behind - the close of the slow movement and the haunting coda of the finale - will pierce your heart. This is a full-on, highly involving, dramatic performance, and one that you will surely want to come back to regularly, even if you don’t want to hear the work like this every time.
The performance from Raphael Wallfisch is just as satisfying in its own way. His playing is more civilised than that of Rostropovich, who often played like a man possessed, even demented. This, for many listeners, including myself much of the time, tips the scales significantly in Wallfisch’s favour. His tone is richer, rounder than Rostropovich’s, and his technical command is never in doubt. If this is a more thoughtful performance than Rostropovich’s, it certainly isn’t a restrained one. But there is the feeling that the emotional core of the music is kept under closer control than it is by the older cellist. The London Symphony Orchestra is superb, its sound perhaps closer the Prague than to Berlin, and with some splendidly brassy horn fanfares in the first movement. All this, no doubt, is partly thanks to the magisterial conducting of Charles Mackerras, one of the greatest of all exponents of Czech music.
The coupling on the Chandos disc is Dohnányi’s Konzertstück, billed as a premiere recording when the disc was first issued in 1989. In three linked movements, it is a cello concerto in all but name, and a most attractive one at that, if not a particularly extended one. The first movement is passionate and impulsive and is linked to an equally passionate and searching slow movement. The cello sings throughout, as it also does in the equally ardent and often exciting finale. Among its many points of interest is the third movement cadenza that precedes the work’s tranquil close. This cadenza is not at all the virtuoso showpiece we usually expect, but a pensive recapitulation of many themes, to the surprising accompaniment of the cello section of the orchestra. It is a thoroughly satisfying and worthwhile piece, and the performance is just as fine as that of the Dvořák coupling.
The Pristine coupling is a recording from 1956 of Nicolai Miaskovsky’s Cello Concerto. I’m pretty sure I had this work in my collection as a teenager, on an EMI LP, with Oistrakh playing Prokofiev on the other side. It clearly didn’t make much impression on me at that time, as when I listened to this disc I felt I was making the work’s acquaintance. It is a very fine work indeed, late romantic in style and atmosphere, with a dark, brooding first movement in which the composer skilfully exploits the cello’s singing quality. The second of the two movement is launched with huge energy, but this soon subsides into another lyrical passage. The two moods alternate until a cadenza appears, rather similar in function to that in Dohnányi’s work, and this is followed by a noble passage that in turn gives way to a resigned closing passage in triple time, slowly winding down to end the work in melancholy mood, despite the major key. It is a very fine work, and receives here the passionate advocacy of Rostropovich, ably supported by that fine accompanist, Sir Malcolm Sargent.
The Chandos disc is a modern recording, the musicians caught in full, rich and detailed sound. There are good notes from Gerald Larner that you can also read in French or in German if the whim takes you. This is a superb disc that can be confidently recommended, even if - and this would be really perverse - you want only one version of the Dvořák in your collection. For those who like to duplicate, the Pristine disc is indispensable. I am an unconvinced collector of historical issues, usually disappointed by the sound, but here it is perfectly acceptable, if sometimes a little harsh and tiring in louder passages, especially in the Miaskovsky. The booklet is nothing more than a photocopied inlay card: notes are minimal, therefore, but more are available on the company’s website.
William Hedley 

see also review of the Chandos disc by Gavin Dixon

Masterwork Index: Dvorak Cello concerto

Nikolai Miaskovsky review index




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