I was talking to The McBee last weekend about the amazingness of Dvorak’s cello concerto. It goes without saying that it’s the greatest cello concerto ever written for all those musical reasons which you can’t put into words without seeming like an idiot. It has better melodies, livelier rhythms, more beautiful harmonies, and more emotional wallop – not just moreso than any other cello concerto, but perhaps more than any 19th century concerto for any instrument.
(Dvorak – a song composer for the ages)
Dvorak was not a natural composer. He was a natural musician who apparently played both the violin and viola beautifully. His compositions had an effortless command of all the basic musical elements – the only problem is that he rarely knew how to make it interesting for more than five minutes at a time. If he’d stuck with songs and dances, he could have been a miniaturist to rival Schubert and Chopin.
But for better or worse, Dvorak wanted to write long-form compositions. And in the stead of miniatures he wrote opera after opera, symphony after symphony, every one of which has dull spots as he clumsily negotiates the clichés of German symphonic development. Nothing Dvorak wrote is without interest, and yet there is so much music by him that feels like all the good parts should be spliced together by an editor with a good pair of scissors and no conscience (Stokowski?).
Even most of his greatest works – the New World Symphony, the late sacred music, the American Quartet and the A-Major Piano Quintet – all of it has dull spots. The only exception in this regard is the Cello Concerto. It is the one long-form work by Dvorak that is absolutely perfect. A decent performance will hold our attention and never let us go. It is as moving and exciting in the first bar as it is in the last. So how inspiring would Dvorak’s Cello Concerto be if its performances were any good?
The McBee inspired me to go back and listen to performances of it. He maintained that Yo-Yo Ma was the best performer of the piece, I said that it was Rostropovich. I went back and listened to them both. Sure enough, Yo-Yo Ma was precisely as I remembered. Exciting, charismatic, extraordinarily expressive, and so exaggerated that I almost felt queasy. The slow, lyrical sections were milked to the point that the baby was drowning. So this is what diabetes feels like.
(Vaclav Talich’s Dvorak)
I then went back to good old Mstislav Rostropovich, or should I say young Rostropovich? When I was 20, I went to a record store in Prague and bought a recording of a 25-year-old (but still bald) Rostropovich performing the Cello Concerto with the Czech Philharmonic and their fabled music director – Vaclav Talich. Talich learned Dvorak’s great scores at the feet of the composer himself, and as conductors go, his authority is final. You hear the inimitable Czech Philharmonic sound which Talich worked so assiduously to cultivate that’s so perfect for Dvorak. When every other orchestra plays Dvorak, Dvorak sounds gruff. When the Czech Philharmonic plays him, it sounds like a folky version of Schubert or Mozart.
…So why is this recording so bland? Why does every single phrasing and dynamic marking in the score seem to go unheeded? Why is the entire score played at almost a single tempo when Dvorak is constantly indicating tempo changes? Why is everything played at a comfortable jaunt rather than with the manic Mahlerian frenzies which Dvorak clearly wanted? Rostropovich’s later recordings are more interesting, but at no point does Slava feel as though he cares much about what Dvorak wants. He’s doing his own thing, making his own points, and I have no problem with that if what the performer’s doing is more interesting than what’s written on the page (it often is). But in this case, Slava’s Dvorak is no improvement on Dvorak’s Dvorak.
Later in his career, Slava made something of a religion of this piece. While Slava (perhaps the twentieth century’s greatest instrumentalist) occupied himself with hundreds of more interesting projects, he funded them by making famous recording after famous recording of this piece with high prestige conductors: Karajan, Giulini, Ozawa. Whereas Yo-Yo Ma at least seems like he’s staying within the general guidelines of Dvorak’s phrasing and dynamics, Rostropovich’s phrasing is just plain random. ‘Oooh! This is interesting’ Slava seems to be saying in another in a series of moments brought on by interpretive ADD. It’s bloated, inflated approach full of well-manicured, luxurient sounds…but why does it exist?
And hearing the comfortableness of Slava makes me long for a more dramatic approach. I then remember that first recording, the ‘classic’ Dvorak Cello Concerto. Pablo Casals in 1939 with the Czech Philharmonic and George Szell conducting. Even with the Czech Philharmonic, you lose the Czech ‘tang’ right away through the antiquated sound. But, for once, it’s nice to finally hear things at Dvorak’s tempos. The orchestral accompaniment is truly fantastic. Szell really understood Dvorak and would loosen up quite a bit for his more folky music. But then Pablo comes in… and this giant of the 20th century, this sensitive humanitarian of a musician should be perfect for this most human of pieces. Yet like his two great heirs, the Dvorak completely eludes him. After a few minutes, you begin to notice something striking… he does not play a single soft dynamic. Whereas Yo-Yo Ma is soporific and sentimental, Casals is damn brutal.
(Feuermann playing Prokofiev’s Cello Concerto)
Still more brutal than Casals is Emanuel Feuermann, whom it seems that nobody told that the Dvorak Cello concerto is not a showpiece. This is, for once, a performance that’s faster than Dvorak wanted it. And it’s kind of terrifying how easily this loveable piece can be turned into something resembling Prokofiev, and would be even if the recorded sound didn’t match the performance in shrillness.
Still soppier than Yo-Yo is Jackie. No one - not Slava, not Yo-Yo, not Feuermann, not even Casals - had a more charismatic way with that instrument than Jacqueline Du Pre. Yet she pulls the entire piece apart, and all that effort which Dvorak made to build a perfectly constructed piece of music was for naught.
Still soppier than Jackie is Mischa. Mischa Maiski is the cellist you turn to when the extremes of every other cellist are just not extreme enough. In all fairness to Maisky, three things should be mentioned. 1. He was working with Leonard Bernstein who at the end of his life pushed every extreme as far as he could get. 2. He made another recording of this piece with Zubin Mehta that was not nearly as extreme in its slow speeds as the slow sections this. 3. Except on issues of tempo, he’s hewing much closer to Dvorak’s dynamics and phrasing than most cellists dare. Even so…jeez….
But most cellists fall into the Slava category – Piatagorsky, Tortellier, Starker, Fournier, Rose, Mork, Isserlis – they all simply seem too lazy to put together a great performance - as though they’re hauling out their cello for yet another performance of the Dvorak Cello Concerto. They all sound tired of this piece. I don’t doubt it takes an enormous amount of effort to put it together, but imagine what would happen if some cellist was determined to play this piece with the dedication they’d give to a world premiere. Every time people talk about the tiredness of the classical music world, the cliché is mentioned that maybe we ought to ban certain pieces for a while so we can come to them afresh. I doubt there’s a single piece of music which seems to need such a ban more than the Dvorak Cello Concerto. To hear this piece properly, really hear it, we need a hybrid with Pablo Casals’s discipline and Yo-Yo Ma’s care. In the meantime, to truly hear the greatness of this piece, listen to Maisky and Bernstein once, then never listen to them again.
(Slava at the Proms Part I)
Though maybe there’s one way to get closer to its greatness. I once found a youtube clip that always burns in my mind as the best performance I’ll ever hear of this piece – but it’s only of the last movement. It was Slava Rostropovich in 1974, right after he was forced to defect from the Soviet Union for offering shelter to Soviet dissidents. There was the greatest classical performer of my lifetime, probably penniless at that moment, playing his calling card at the Proms at Royal Albert Hall with a regional British orchestra (Royal Liverpool Philharmonic) and a C-List conductor (Charles Groves). As never before or since, Slava was honoring the tempos and dynamics, not perfectly but well enough to show he cared. He played with an urgency we never again heard from him in this piece which he played ad nauseum. THIS is the greatness of Dvorak.