Antonín Dvorák began a cello concerto in 1865, but left it, among other reasons because he claimed that the cello was insufficient as a solo instrument. The composer finally wrote a concerto for the cello in 1894, while Director of the National Conservatory in New York. History says that he attended two performances of a cello concerto by a faculty member of the Conservatory and was inspired finally to write one of his own. (The faculty member, by the way, was Victor Herbert.) Johannes Brahms is on record as saying “Why on earth didn’t I know that one could write a cello concerto like this? If I had only known, I would have written one long ago!” As a vote of confidence, you can’t hardly get better than that. (Brahms, alas, never followed through.)
The Concerto itself is, indeed, a wonderful piece of music. This is, after all, Dvorák at the height of his powers, and the writing here reveals him to be a composer of substance. This is, in many ways, a challenging work, making full use of Dvorák’s mastery of mood (in this case, quite often mutually opposing moods at the same time). There is also ample evidence of his mastery of melody. And it is, as is de rigeur in these cases, a challenging work for the soloist. Jan Vogeler is up to it, and, while one can hardly fault the New York Philharmonic in any case, under the able leadership of David Robertson it provides superb support and a strong partnership.
The Zigeunerlieder are a treat – by turns lively, melancholy, passionate and serene, they are given a wonderfully intelligent and sensitive performance by Vogeler and Helmut Deutsch on piano, while mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirchschlager’s vocals are terrifically apt. The idea of the Gypsy as a free spirit was one that first appeared in the music of Franz Liszt but found ready support throughout the remainder of the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century. The coupling of the Zigunerlieder and the Concerto makes perfect sense, given the “Gypsy” theme of the Concerto’s last movement.
What is problematic for me in this collection is the inclusion of the songs. Granted, the interviews included with the documentation make a strong case – perhaps too strong – for the inclusion of both the vocal and cello versions of Lasst mich allein, which uses thematic material also used in the Concerto: it was, reportedly, the favorite song of Josefina Kaunitzová, Dvorák’s sister-in-law and the woman he really loved, who died in 1895, shortly before Dvorák’s return to Europe. (In fact, Michael Beckerman in the notes hypothesizes that it was the arrival of letters from Josefina telling of her failing health that prompted the composer to include the theme in the Concerto.) And, although Dvorák was to a certain extent a “musical scavenger” and held Stephen Foster in high regard, I have to wonder at the inclusion of Foster’s “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” and “Wilt Thou Be Gone, Love?” – as far as I’m concerned, it’s a bit of a stretch.
Much is made of Dvorák’s feelings toward Josefina, and that obviously dictated to a certain extent the selection of material for this CD, but one could just as easily have focused on Brahms’ influence: Brahms was a close friend and mentor to Dvorák, and the Cello Concerto was Dvorák’s last “epic” orchestral work – and it is, indeed, nearly Brahmsian in concept — before he turned to tone poems and opera for the rest of his career.
At any rate, even though I find the rationale for this collection somewhat offside, it provides a good insight into the work of Dvorák and an excellent performance of the works included, and deserves a place in our library of great concertos.
(Sony BMG Music Entertainment, 2005)