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Victor HERBERT (1859-1924)
Cello Concerto No 1, Op. 8 (1884) [25:28]
Cello concerto No 2, Op. 30 (1894) [22:33]
Irish Rhapsody for Grand Orchestra (1892) [15:58]
Mark Kosower (cello)
Ulster Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta
rec. Ulster Hall, Belfast, Northern Ireland, 27-29 April 2015
NAXOS 8.573517 [64:00]

Victor Herbert is one of those composers who hovers on the fringes of the repertoire – known principally for light operetta and for his second cello concerto. He was born in Dublin but moved first to London and then to Stuttgart at an early age, after his widowed mother married a German doctor. His education focused on his obvious musical gifts and he learnt the piano, flute and piccolo, taking up the cello at the age of fifteen. From around 1877 he toured central Europe as a cellist, returning to Stuttgart in 1881 and taking up a solo position with the WŁrtemburg Court Orchestra. Herbert and his wife emigrated to the US in 1886 and here he was lionised as a cellist, conductor and composer.

In spite of speaking with a pronounced German accent Herbert traded on his Irishness - there was a large diaspora of Irish immigrants in New York - and, emphasising this, the Irish Rhapsody on the present disc is his quite successful attempt to string together a series of then-popular Irish melodies with, as the booklet writer puts it, “a display of sturdy German contrapuntal expertise”. JoAnn Falletta and the Ulster Orchestra give this an enjoyable performance but, for most potential buyers, the two cello concertos will be the draw.

The Cello Concerto No. 1 was composed in 1884 and first performed by the composer in Stuttgart shortly before he emigrated to the U.S. For many years it survived only in manuscript and, after Herbert’s own performances ceased, it fell into oblivion until it was rescued and recorded for the first time in 1986 by Lynn Harrell. It has since been published but this Naxos CD is the only other recording of it I have been able to find. It’s a fairly slight work. The first movement has some similarities of character with the Sullivan concerto (of 1866) and sounds like music from the middle of the nineteenth century rather than later. The second movement is more memorable, with a lovely yearning theme framing a central scherzo section. The last movement is a virtuosic polonaise which succumbs to note-spinning in places but manages to stick in the mind.

Kosower’s performance is very fine. In many respects he sounds similar to Harrell and switching between the two initially reveals no major differences of approach or tone. That said there are several subtle but telling differences. Harrell’s technique is marginally preferable - a slightly more characterful tone with tasteful touches of portamento. He also varies the tempo to a greater extent and this makes the music sound more interesting – especially during the first movement duet between the cello and the orchestral harp, where the effect is magical, and moments like this lift the music above the relatively commonplace. Both soloists play their own cadenzas in the first movement and there is little to choose between them. Harrell’s contains a little more extended rhetoric and variety and (together with greater variations of tempo elsewhere) is responsible for Harrell taking 12:26 for the first movement by comparison with Kosower’s 11:18. The slow movements are equally fine. Speeds in the finale are very similar but, once again, Harrell tends to vary the tempo more and Kosower’s performance tends to chug along fairly solidly by comparison.

The Ulster musicians provide good support but the Academy of St Martin’s sounds the more refined orchestra. Both recordings are good with about the right amount of reverberation. Harrell is well integrated into the plane of the orchestra whereas the Naxos recording tends to put Kosower in the spotlight – which is fine except where this tends to capture the occasional grunt from the soloist. On balance I marginally preferred the Decca recording and performance but it is a close-run thing.

The Cello Concerto No. 2 dates from 1894. It marks quite an advance on the first concerto and it is also shorter and more tightly constructed – very much according to the same plan as the first concerto of Saint-SaŽns, with which it bears many similarities. The concerto starts with a big, memorable theme to which all the subsequent themes are related. We get a Lento bridging passage to a lovely Andante Tranquillo slow central movement and then we are back to a virtuoso finale based on the opening theme of the first movement. This, of course, is the Herbert concerto that is reputed to have inspired Dvorak to have his second go at writing a cello concerto (he had never got around to orchestrating his first effort of 1865). In fact it may simply be that Herbert’s work demonstrated to Dvorak that it was perfectly possible to use a big orchestra without masking the soloist.

After Dvorak’s great concerto appeared, Herbert’s work suffered by comparison. Tully Potter’s booklet note suggests that it was forgotten until Julian Lloyd Webber revived it in the mid-1980s but, in fact, it never disappeared completely from the repertoire and there is a venerable old performance from 1957 on Mercury by Georges Miquelle, supported by the Eastman Rochester Orchestra under Howard Hanson, to prove it. These days, apart from the Harrell and Kosower performances we also have Lloyd-Webber’s 1986 performance (coupled with the Sullivan concerto), a newer one by Gautier Capucon (review) and versions by James Kreger (review) and Yo-Yo Ma - all coupled with the Dvorak second concerto. The Miquelle performance has long been a favourite of mine and is still available – now also on Naxos (download only). The old Mercury single microphone recording technique produced results that still sound astonishingly good – even in the (usually disastrous) form of electronically re-processed stereo. Ma’s performance, with the New York Philharmonic under Kurt Masur, came out in 1995 and was very well-received so I decided to compare Kosower with both Ma and Miquelle.

As with the comparison between Harrell and Kosower all three cellists sound strikingly similar in tone – with Kosower and Miquelle barely distinguishable in places. In fact I could only identify the Miquelle performance by the slight raggedness in the string sound of the older recording. Ma has a slightly greater rasp to his sound and, of the three, Kosower tends to play with most legato. Kosower’s orchestral soundstage is, as with the first concerto, recessed behind the soloist with Miquelle’s less so. Like Harrell, Ma is more in the plane of the orchestra and there is a better stereo spread and slightly more detail in his recording. Timings suggest that the first movements are very similar. Whilst this is true it masks the fact that there is greater variation of speed in Ma’s performance.

Ma 8:14 6:49 5:39
Kosower 8.12 7.35 6.44
Miquelle 8.13 8.17 6.35

The main differences are in the middle and last movements. Like Harrell, Ma is slightly more characterful than Kosower – but he doesn’t have it all his own way. Kosower pulls the music back a little more and acquits himself extremely well with some especially lovely hushed playing in the slow movement. Miquelle achieves much the same but slowing to a greater extent. Here it is also interesting to compare the orchestral strings - the Ulster orchestra has the purer sound but the New York Philharmonic has the greater intensity and variety. In the last movement Miquelle and Kosower adopt similar speeds but, as in the slow movement, Kosower tends to pull back slightly more. Ma and Masur set off faster and maintain the momentum – with some very fast and accurate virtuoso playing from the soloist in the scampering passage towards the end.

In the final analysis these are all splendid performances and recordings and, given the similarities, it is difficult to go wrong with any of them, although I suppose the old Mercury recording must now yield to the newer ones. Also I feel that Ma, like Harrell, is just that little bit more characterful than Kosower. On the other hand your choice may be dictated by the choice of coupling or your budget - Harrell’s disc will set you back 2-3 times as much as Kosower’s. In any event this new Naxos disc of concertos that should be better known is very acceptable indeed at budget price.

Bob Stevenson



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