RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104 (1894-95) [38:44]
Édouard LALO (1823-1892)
Cello Concerto in D minor (1876-77) [26:35]
Johannes Moser (cello)
PKF – Prague Philharmonia/Jakub Hrůša
rec. Forum Karlin, Prague, Czech Republic, 2015. DDD
PENTATONE PTC5186488 SACD [65:33]
Oh, not another Dvořák Cello Concerto recording, you would be justified in asking. Well, yes and no. This is indeed a special one, but not only for the superb performance the German-Canadian cellist Johannes Moser gives with the Prague Philharmonia under Jakub Hrůša of this most popular of all cello concertos. What makes this disc practically indispensable is its inclusion of the less frequently heard Lalo concerto in the best account I have heard since Pierre Fournier recorded it many years ago with Jean Martinon and the Lamoureux Orchestra for DG.
The Lalo, composed nearly twenty years before Dvořák’s, deserves at least the exposure of such other staples as the Schumann and Saint-Saëns concertos. It is superior to those, if not at the level of Dvořák’s exalted work. After a powerfully dramatic orchestral introduction, the cello enters with a heroic theme. At about 2:28 (track 1) this main theme includes a short phrase with note sequences and rhythm similar to those of the first theme of the Dvořák. The phrase also returns later in the movement. Was Dvořák familiar with the Lalo work, or was it merely coincidental? Beyond the main theme Lalo produces one of his tuneful, lyrical melodies in the cello. It is frankly heart-stopping and here is wonderfully played by Moser.
The second movement, Intermezzo, begins with strings in a melancholy mood, but is much lighter than the first movement’s main theme. The cello enters with its own poignant melody that leads to a light, scherzo-like theme with flute and pizzicato strings accompanying the cello. This section has a Spanish flavour — something that will also manifest itself in the finale. The Spanish quality of the concerto is less obvious than that in Lalo’s more popular Symphonie espagnole, and I have always preferred the Cello Concerto to that violin work. The finale starts with the cello playing a declamatory, Spanish-sounding theme as serious in mood as the theme at the beginning of the first movement. However, before long Lalo gives the listener a most delightful calypso-like passage that long haunts the memory. It alternates with the bolder Spanish theme ending the work in high spirits. Moser captures the essence of the piece as well as can be imagined and Hrůša’s accompaniment is all one could ask with the orchestra incisive and jubilant. Pentatone’s engineering is not one whit inferior to the performances, providing bold, clear sound with plenty of warmth.
The Lalo performance would alone be worth the price of the disc but for most listeners I imagine the Dvořák is the main attraction — one of the greatest works ever for cello and orchestra. As with the Lalo, my touchstone has been and remains Pierre Fournier’s account — the one with the Berlin Philharmonic under George Szell (DG). Of those I have heard in recent years, this new one with Moser comes closest. It may not supplant the Fournier in my estimation, but it is bound to become my favourite digital recording. I hailed Zuill Bailey’s recording with the Indianapolis Symphony (Telarc) a couple years back for its spontaneity and the excitement of a live performance. I still take real pleasure in it. However, I now find its tempos just a tad extreme in places. The recording is very good, especially for a live performance and I will continue to listen to it from time to time. With Moser and Hrůša, though, there is a naturalness where nothing is overstated and yet everything is given its due. The Prague Philharmonia surely is responsible for a great deal of the quality. The orchestra, founded on the initiative of Jiří Bělohlávek in 1994, has fewer strings than the Czech or Berlin philharmonics and this allows all of the wonderful detail in the woodwinds and brass to be heard. Still there is no sense of the strings being undernourished. The balance between solo cello and the orchestra throughout seems ideal, and the sound is first class in every way.
Moser’s burnished, yet refined, tone is reminiscent of Fournier’s and his technique is impeccable. Hrůša is as one with him throughout. They maintain steady tempos and emphasize the architecture of the score — no flashiness, but honest music-making that brings its own just rewards. From the beginning Hrůša has the orchestra playing tautly, but with plenty of attention paid to the many lyrical episodes. They ease the tempos for the songful passages without having the music come to a stop. At the same time the orchestra’s final flourish is not unduly sped up, as has been the case in a number of recent accounts including Jun Märkl’s for Zuill Bailey.
I auditioned this disc in standard stereo format and was greatly impressed with the immediacy of the sound. I can only imagine that in surround sound it is even better.
Pentatone’s production is also first class with a booklet containing very good notes and colour photos. I realize that listeners will have their own favourites when it comes to the Dvořák, since there have been quite a number of laudable recordings in recent years. As stated above, what makes this disc so special is its inclusion of the Lalo. I cannot imagine it being better played and the Dvořák is also quite special.
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