Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104 (1895) [37.44]
Augusta Read THOMAS (b. 1964)
Ritual Incantations for cello and chamber orchestra (1999) [13.27]
David Finckel (cello)
Taipei Symphony Orchestra/Felix Chiu-Sen Chen
rec. October 2003, Chungshan Hall, Taipei, Taiwan. DDD
ARTISTLED 28822-8 [51.10]

This coupling, recorded in 2003, was previously issued on an earlier Artistled disc. The recordings have been re-mastered for this reissue. Readers interested in the background to the Artistled label will do no better than to consult an earlier MusicWeb International review.

The opening tutti of Dvořák’s glorious concerto provides ample opportunity to anticipate how the rest of the performance is likely to turn out from an orchestral point of view. There is a fair amount of variation of tempo here, but it all sounds very natural, and happily there is only a mild slowing down for the horn-led second subject. Conductor Felix Chiu-Sen Chen clearly has the measure of the work. The string sound from the Taipei Symphony Orchestra is neither as rich nor as deep as some rival ensembles on disc, but the playing is very fine indeed, and there is no sense of disappointment. We are treated to some excellent solo wind playing, with the first flute particularly distinguished throughout. The trio of horns provides some pleasingly brassy sounds when required too.

David Finckel’s playing is full of character, with a fine grasp of the music’s ardent nature as well as its almost unbearable nostalgia. Two bars of suspect intonation apart, and that when Dvořák demands almost superhuman skills from his soloist (10.35 in the first movement), Finckel is technically very impressive. I am particularly taken by his reading of the slow movement, where he creates and beautifully maintains the mood of introspective meditation, whilst going further than many other players in respect of the music’s yearning passion. This is most effective and satisfying. Other soloists, on the other hand, have been more inward, more musing and apparently more reluctant to leave the stage as Dvořák revisits his thematic material in the closing minutes.

An obsessive admirer of this concerto, of which there are surely many, could easily fill a whole shelf with the different versions available. Rather predictably, my own favourite readings include two by Mstislav Rostropovich. His performance from 1968 with Karajan has established itself as a classic, and rightly so. Rostropovich’s stunning technical mastery, unique sound and huge insight into the work make for an unforgettable experience, and Karajan – not, as a rule, one of my favourite conductors – draws attentive accompanying from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra that flowers into hugely charismatic playing when the music demands it. The recording is very fine too, better balanced than the performance under review, where the soloist is placed a little too far forward, sometimes obscuring important orchestral detail, particularly in the finale. Then again, many will find an earlier Rostropovich performance, recorded in Prague in 1952 with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra under Václav Talich, more overwhelming still. Less refined, less “clean” than the Berlin performance, it nonetheless comes over with massive power and patriotic fervour.

The Artistled booklet carries an adequate note on the Dvořák by Richard E. Rodda, but it is the composer Augusta Read Thomas herself who introduces us to Ritual Incantations. The work makes a refreshingly unusual coupling, though quite an appropriate one, given that David Finckel was the soloist at the work’s premiere in 1999. Playing without a break, its three movements carry the indications “Majestic, driving and persistent; cantabile – Mysterious and expansive; longing; yearning – Spirited; passionate; bold and lyrical”. That’s a lot of words, and her prose style is somewhat similar: “... my primary artistic concern is to communicate in an honest and passionate voice, being faithful to my deepest inner promptings and creative urges” is one of her more restrained utterances. Thankfully, her music is focused and precise. The musical language is advanced, but will not shock anyone who can cope with, say, Lutosławski. The work sounds challenging for the soloist, though well conceived for the instrument and with no circus hoops to leap through. The orchestral writing is very fine, colourful, with a fair amount of tuned percussion. The aural effect of the first part of the work corresponds closely to the composer’s indications copied above, as they also do in the second section, which features several passages of real atmosphere and beauty. The short third section I find less successful. The quality of the invention is inferior, and the music drives towards its intended dramatic close without much feeling of inevitability.

I have been listening to Ritual Incantations without access to the score, but the performance seems first rate. The players are clearly committed to the work and communicate their conviction, as well as the work’s importance, directly to the listener.

William Hedley

Previous review: Michael Cookson

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