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
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.
see also review of the Chandos disc by Gavin Dixon
Masterwork Index: Dvorak
Miaskovsky review index