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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Cello Concerto in B minor, op. 104 (1895) [39:56]
Piano Trio No. 4 ‘Dumky’, op. 90 (1891) [29:32]
Jean-Guihen Queyras (cello)
Alexander Melnikov (piano)
Isabelle Faust (violin)
Prague Philharmonia/Jiří Bělohlávek
No recording details supplied
Reviewed as 16-bit lossless download
No booklet provided
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC901867 [69:28]

Recently I reviewed a debut CD from a Polish trio which included the Dvořák Dumky trio. In doing research for that review, I found this recording which was released in 2005, and did not get a review here. The three performers in the trio are well-known soloists, whose more recent recording of Beethoven trios on period instruments was given a rave reception by Brian Wilson here. I listened to it for the Beethoven part of my Piano Trio survey, and was very impressed by the performance but not the sound of the instruments. With the players re-united here with modern instruments, this seemed too good to pass up.

With the concerto, it seems appropriate to begin with a caveat: the Prague Philharmonia is a chamber orchestra, but not a tiny one. Because no booklet was provided with the download, I can’t say for sure how many performed on this recording, but their website lists twelve members of the first violins. Nevertheless, it is certainly a smaller band than the Berlin Philharmonic or the London Symphony or whichever orchestra is playing on your favourite version of the Dvořák concerto.

Does the smaller orchestra dilute the effect? I am happy to report that it does not. There is plenty of volume in the big climaxes, and more importantly, Dvořák’s beautiful woodwind writing is never in danger of being obscured. Equally, the engineers have not had to artificially enhance the soloist. A number of times I have attended a concert featuring a cello concerto, only to be frustrated by not being able to hear the soloist properly over the full orchestra; not a problem here. In the slow movement, the benefit of the smaller orchestra becomes even more apparent, as we seem to be entering a chamber music atmosphere, such is the communication between soloist and individuals in the orchestra.

As for the performance, this was my first encounter with Jean-Guihen Queyras as a concerto soloist and I can safely say it will not be my last. He seems incapable of making an unpleasant sound with his instrument, though I do note numerous modern works in his discography, and I daresay there are plenty of “unpleasant” notes there. Even when really digging in for greater volume, such as his first entry, there is never the hint of any nasal strangled sound. The beauties spread throughout are legion. It is not an especially swift performance, at a few seconds under forty minutes. There are only 20-30 second differences in each movement compared to the legendary Rostropovich/Karajan recording. It is exceptional in every way, and belongs in every collection with at least one Dvořák concerto ... and isn’t that every collection.

It was the trio that drew me to this recording in the first place, and having been so impressed by the concerto, I wondered where it could go from there. A dumka is a Slavic lament, the Dumky trio includes a one in each of its six movements. This means that each movement has a dark episode, but Dvořák creates a unique format by also including a contrasting light section in each. I have seen a number of references in other reviews to its bipolar or manic-depressive nature, which I feel is a rather tasteless analogy. In the review I referred to at the start, I felt that the Daroch Trio didn’t manage the contrasting elements as well as they should. I have no such reservations about this performance: the dark moments are very dark, chillingly so in places, making the climb into the light so much more dazzling. The Beaux Arts Trio has long been held as a standard for this work, and was indeed my only version for a long while. Listening to it again, I find it too refined – this has lots of rustic and folk elements to it, and does not need to be quite so elegant. There are many recordings of this work – Arkivmusic lists 65 – and I only know half a dozen or so. I haven’t heard the Florestan Trio’s version or one by Trio Solisti on Bridge which was highly regarded by my colleague Brian Reinhart. When I get to the D part of my survey, I will doubtless become familiar with these and many more, but I really doubt that any will better this one.

Referencing again my earlier review, I wondered who would buy a CD from a new trio with three oft-recorded works. Queyras and colleagues are established artists, but again the question arises: why should I buy this when I already have good or great recordings of both works? The answer is simply that both performances are outstanding, with the Trio possibly sweeping the field. Again I face the situation of a back catalogue item that totally justifies a Recording of the Month award, but because it is 10 years old, I choose not to.

David Barker