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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104 (1894/95) [37.44]
Augusta Read THOMAS (b. 1964)
Ritual Incantations for cello and chamber orchestra (1999) [13.25]
David Finckel (cello)
Taipei Symphony Orchestra/Felix Chiu-Sen Chen
rec. October 2003, Chungshan Hall, Taipei, Taiwan. DDD
ARTISTLED 28822-8 [51.10]

American cellist David Finckel and Taiwanese-born pianist Wu Han are involved in wide-ranging musical activities, both artistic and commercial. These include the independent ArtistLed label which to date has released 18 CDs.

I have seen Finckel several times in recital the first time in Preston, England and the last time less than a year ago at the Großer Garten, Dresden. I have always been impressed with his passionate commitment and his rare ability to make everything he does sound fresh.

Originally released in 2006 and titled Cello Classics New & Old this recording of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto and the world premičre recording of Augusta Read Thomas’s Ritual Incantations is ArtistLed’s first orchestral release. With the present disc the label has reissued the recording in an enhanced edition that has undergone audio re-mastering by Grammy-winning recording producer and recording engineer Da-Hong Seetoo.

Conducted by Felix Chiu-Sen Chen the Taipei Symphony Orchestra may not be the best known but is clearly well prepared and plays with remarkable commitment and no shortage of expertise. So please don’t be put off by hearing what might seem a curious amalgam of an American soloist with a Taiwanese orchestra performing a great romantic cello concerto by Dvořák, a native of Bohemia.

By the early 1890s Dvořák’s fame had travelled far and wide. In 1892 he received an offer to travel to the United States from Mrs. Jeanette Thurber, the founder of the National Conservatory of Music, New York. For a enormous fee Dvořák eventually decided to accept the offer and from 1892 to 1895 held the position of the director of the National Conservatory in New York City. During his stay Dvořák wrote several major works, including the Symphony No. 9New World’, the ‘AmericanString Quartet and the Cello Concerto a work widely regarded as the crowning glory of the cello repertoire. The score is dedicated to Dvořák’s friend Hanus Wihan, the founder and cellist of the Czech String Quartet. It was composed in 1894/95. Its motivation came from hearing the playing of Victor Herbert, cello principal of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. I have also read recently that Dvořák found further inspiration from seeing the magnificence of Niagara Falls.

In the Cello Concerto David Finckel expertly balances security of control with weight of expression. It's a commanding performance of nobility and intense concentration. In this highly impressive and characterful interpretation, he conveys the message with power and directness. In the opening movement, right from the first entry of the cello with the first subject at 03.30 (track 1) Finckel demonstrates an impressive strength and directness of expression; qualities that he maintains throughout. The sheer beauty of the great second theme, first heard on the cello at 05.33 is breathtaking. Unlike virtually every rival version Finckel avoids drawing out the tempo and line this preventing any over-indulgence. In his hands the Adagio non troppo is an intensely emotional experience, the wistful song-like melodies played with rapture and refined tenderness. In the final movement there's an exciting bite to his playing. Right from the opening bars of the fiery orchestral introduction to the tempestuous conclusion Felix Chen conducts with authority. With playing as splendid as this from the Taipei Symphony Orchestra it would be difficult to know that the listener wasn’t hearing one of the world’s better known orchestras.

The main competition in the Dvořák concerto comes from the award-winning 1969 Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin account from Rostropovich with the Berliner Philharmoniker under Karajan on Deutsche Grammophon. With Rostropovich in his prime and for its feeling of spontaneity, stunning virtuosity and strength of passion the recording deserves its eminence. I also admire the intensely moving performance from Jacqueline du Pré with the Swedish RSO under Sergiu Celibidache on Teldec. Notable too for its nobility and lyricism is the account from Pierre Fournier with the Berliner Philharmoniker under George Szell on Deutsche Grammophon. Newly released is another highly passionate account that I greatly enjoy. This is played by Christian Poltéra with the Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under Thomas Dausgaard. It was recorded in 2014 at the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin on BIS. Without surpassing the above accounts, particularly the magnificent Rostropovich recording, Finckel’s performance can certainly stand in the same elevated company.

The composer Augusta Read Thomas was born in 1964 in New York and studied at Northwestern University, at Yale University and at the Royal Academy of Music in London. In 2010 Thomas was appointed Professor of Composition in the Department of Music at the University of Chicago. Thomas is known as a passionate and highly original voice among American composers. Her influences come not only from the world of music (J.S. Bach, Berio, Boulez, Byrd, Debussy, Knussen, Mahler, Messiaen, Varčse and Webern among them), but also from literature, especially poetry. In a November 2001 essay, musicologist Seth Brodsky argued that the poetic idea of image offers insight into Thomas’s compositional art. Various images, the sun, light, the voice, song, bells and stars run through her works.

Composed in 1999 in response to a commission by Thomas van Straaten, Ritual Incantations was introduced by David Finckel and the Aspen Music Festival Chamber Orchestra under Hugh Wolff the same year. The three movement score gives directions to orchestra, soloist, and conductor all of which reflect the images that define the spiritual world that Thomas seeks to convey in her music:-

I: Majestic; driving and persistent; cantabile
II: Mysterious and expansive; longing; yearning
III: Spirited; passionate, bold and lyrical

In Ritual Incantations Finckel offers the ingredients of vitality, passion and sense of risk. This all adds up to an enthralling performance throughout the score’s “musical landscapes.” Well supported by conductor and orchestra, his playing is both brilliant and dedicated. I especially enjoy Finckel’s performance of the central movement where the “Mysterious and expansive; longing; yearning” imagery is evocatively portrayed and delivered with unyielding concentration.

The new liner-notes for this ArtistLed reissue with a note from Augusta Read Thomas are interesting and helpful. Add to these elements attractive new artwork.

While I was delighted with the sonics of the original release, in its re-mastered form the recording sounds exceptional: clean, vividly clear and gratifyingly balanced. In the face of fierce competition David Finckel gives one of the finest accounts I have heard of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto. The Augusta Read Thomas work is fascinating and engaging, deserving of attention.

Michael Cookson

 

 




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