Dvorak Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104

performed by Carmine Miranda and the Moravian Philharmonic under Petr Vronský, or below in another stunning performance with Rostropovich and the London Philharmonic under Guilini, the same pairing from Saint-Saëns last week!

If I had known that it was possible to compose such a concerto for the cello, I would have tried it myself!

Johannes Brahms, upon hearing Dvorak’s concerto for cello

We’ve back-and-forthed a bit in our reading of Dvorak’s works, touching first on his first quartet from way early on in his career, then skipping ahead to the famous ‘American’ 12th quartet, and I did that because I wanted to put some of his work in context. With the seventh symphony, we saw not only Dvorak’s spectacular compositional prowess, but his passion for his homeland, his culture, a sense of patriotism in representing the Czech people.

Today, though, we see Dvorak, not with the explicit goal of representing his Czech people, or giving a voice to America, but homesick. It’s obviously not that simple, but this was the last large-scale work from his time in America. The ninth symphony is op. 95, the ‘American’ quartet op. 96, the ‘American’ quintet op. 97, and here op. 104, the  cello concerto, to be followed by the last two quartets. He returned to Europe before writing his symphonic poems, a few of which we discussed last year, almost exactly a year ago, in fact.

In any case, that all is to say that this work comes at a very late time in the composer’s life, after he’d assimilated all he would likely assimilate in his career: his own culture and background, training, influence from Brahms and others, time in America, clearly heard in the ‘American’ and ‘New World’ works, and we hear him here longing to be home.

I spoke with cellist Carmine Miranda in a previous podcast episode (two actually, but the other dealing with Schumann), and Miranda says that this work is really much like a symphony with cello solo. Compared to the Saint-Saëns, for example, the orchestra has a much more critical part; it’s really a full-bodied, very serious work, with enough of its own content and form to have potentially been a symphony, but instead we have a glorious, virtuosic cello part to turn it into one of the greatest cello concertos in the repertoire, if not the greatest. It’s said that Brahms even commented that he’d have written a cello concerto to if he’d known something like this was possible.

This wasn’t actually the composer’s first effort to compose a work for the cello. He’d composed (an apparently complete, or mostly complete) cello score with piano accompaniment for an associate he knew in an orchestra, giving him the music to review, but both gave up and the work was never finished, at least not by the composer’s hand. Interestingly, then, when Hanuš Wihan, a Czech cellist, perhaps the greatest of his time, asked his fellow countryman for a cello concerto, he could not refuse. But he had in the past, apparently, claiming he felt the cello was “a fine orchestral instrument but totally insufficient for a solo concerto,” says Wiki. He apparently didn’t care for its nasal high register and muddled lower register, stating that no one would be more surprised than himself if he wrote a concerto. And then he wrote, like, the best one ever.

It reminds me of Tchaikovsky’s comment about how horrible a piano and orchestra would sound together, and then he writes three piano concertos, the first of which also one of the most famous in the repertoire.

In any case, it was actually after hearing Victor Herbert’s wonderful second cello concerto while in America, at least a few times, that he finally decided the cello was worthy of a concerto from his hand. In fact, Herbert was principal cellist for the premiere of the ‘New World Symphony’, so there is a small string of coincidences or connections that precipitated this masterpiece. The work’s composition lasted only a few months, and it was subject to some suggestions from Wihan, who had intended to add two cadenzas, including one in the third movement, but ultimately Dvorak accepted very few of the changes, also rejecting the cadenzas. He demanded of his publisher that the work be subject to no further changes, and published as he had ultimately decided it should exist.

After all this, though, Wihan ended up not giving the premiere as promised. In one of those scheduling nightmares where the date you propose for a thing is okay for all but one person and someone locks it in, the Philharmonic Society insisted on Dvorak’s proposed date, which Wihan was unable to make, and Leo Stern performed the premiere. After some uncomfortable ruffling of feathers, including Dvorak threatening not to attend the premiere, Stern performed it on 19 March, 1896 on the 1684 “General Kyd” cello, one of a very small number of Stradivarius cellos.

Now to the music.

The piece is in the rather standard three-movement form, and really does feel very much like a symphony. While the solo cello part is really frighteningly virtuosic (something I didn’t appreciate nearly as much until I read the score; you can see it in Rostropovich’s performance above), it’s so well integrated with the (superbly written) orchestral part that there’s never as much a feeling in this work (as there was in the Saint-Saëns) that it’s all about the cellist. There is powerful music here that, frankly, I feel like I’m just barely beginning to unravel.

One of the reasons I decided to jump ahead to the 12th string quartet on Sunday was to travel to a time where Dvorak was writing ‘American’ music, or at least music in America. Listen to it, to the ‘American’ quintet, and to the ninth symphony, and tell me there isn’t something of that earthen, ‘New World’ sound to the opening of this work. It’s not outright pentatonic or ‘folk’ sounding. It feels like Dvorak on the East Coast of the U.S., now looking not west toward the heart of the country, but across the ocean toward his own homeland. The opening from clarinets and strings might bring Tchaikovsky to mind. There’s a more international sound to this work, more European. As you’ll quickly find, the writing for horns is exquisite. The opening is commanding, bold, charismatic, handsome. There are breathtaking passages where basses enter, where flute gives us idyllic trills and strings hush the intensity of the opening to bring a horn solo around and introduce something more nostalgic.

As we saw in the seventh symphony, Dvorak’s writing for the orchestra is superb, and he continues that here a few symphonies later, even after the ninth, with this work, but what’s yet more impressive is the skill with which the solo cello part is handled. Upon its entry, we hear the utterance of those same themes the orchestra introduced, but with big triple stops, in a few different keys, and moments of intimate, tender beauty. Carmine Miranda’s treatment of the solo part and the quality of the recording accentuate both the tenderness and power of the writing.

For some time, literally a decade and a half ago, I came to own some recording of this work, likely du Pre, but really only listened to the first movement… I didn’t have any understanding of classical music or of what the overall structure of a work like this should be, or what the other movements were, but this first movement always compelled me. It’s stunning writing, and not only presents music rich in contrasts, expressiveness, beauty, and virtuosity, but establishes material (and an emotional palette) that will be used later in the work.

In all this contrast and tension and powerful emotion, though, there is one stunning, piercing, gasp moment of beauty. The figure we’ve heard throughout this work, first uttered by the clarinet, and the first figure presented by the solo cello, takes a sudden turn in the end of the first movement and sounds less like a rhetorical question, and more like a statement of triumph:

(that video should start at 14:59)

Wait for the cello to finish its statement, and when the orchestra returns, that last interval changes, and the cello echoes it. It is to me, one of the smallest and yet most noticeable transformations in all of music.

And it is with that unforgettable, unmistakable sense of triumph that the first movement ends. The second movement brings us to something different. We begin with a stark contrast to the fireworks and dynamics of the first movement, a broad, sentimental theme, but that’s not to say the adagio is without its own weight. The majority of the second movement is left for the cello to lead, either in exposed solo moments, or serenade-like sections with backing of various instruments, mainly flute. The woodwinds have their own chorale-like passages, but it’s not all autumn leaves and cool breezes. There is a sudden eruption of poignant emotion, almost as a reaction to the initial tranquility, and we have yet another powerful, but this time more intimate, personal movement.

The low crunch of strings that begins the final movement may call to mind the opening of Mahler 6 or something more Imperial, for some listeners, but it’s the commanding finale of our work. Horns break up the death march sound, and the piece builds to yet another exciting symphonic swell. It briefly recalls a bit of the sound of the first movement, but then sounds much more European. The movement is a rondo, and is the climax of the work, not only in form, but in the incredible virtuosity of the solo part. There are statements, restatements, contrasts and re-contrasts. See if you can ‘catch’ what each of the themes are, some of them sounding quite Eastern European, folksy, rustic? There are more developed symphonic passages here, and it’s full of excitement every which way you look at it.

What ultimately ties this work together, though, is the restatement of the content from the first movement. It’s as if, maybe, Dvorak has thought of home, looked in its direction, reminisced about it, longed to be back, struggled with his emotions, but ultimately finds himself, at the end of the work, back where he started, in the ‘new world’, but soon to go home. There’s perhaps some discussion to be had of the quietude with which this piece seems to want to end. Quite a large swathe of the end of the finale is quiet, transparent music, but eventually swells to a large final statement, a climax that ends abruptly.

Whether it’s the expert writing for the solo cello, the exquisite orchestral writing, the balance of the interaction between the two, or the overall structure and presentation of the work and what it expresses, Dvorak’s cello concerto is a, perhaps even the, masterpiece for the instrument, and has been considered so for some time. Brahms, as quoted above, seems not even to have considered the possibility of a solo cello concerto, having written his double concerto nearly a century earlier.

I asked Carmine Miranda when I interviewed him about this recording if the world really needed yet another recording of a piece that most (if not all) of the world’s famous cellists have tried their hands at, and he gave a convincing response. You should go listen to it. In another way, though, aside from the soloist’s own thoughts and emotions toward the work, the playing and the quality of the recording are superb. I hear things in this performance that I swear I’ve never heard elsewhere. It’s clear, crisp, and clean without sounding ‘photoshopped’ or unrealistic. I’d have no problems recommending this as a first recording for someone new to these works, or even to someone who knows them well. It’s a fantastic recording of the Dvorak, and the Schumann, which we will eventually discuss, is also a delightful recording, and a work that Miranda has done a pretty extensive analysis of and feels quite passionate about.

So that’s it for Dvorak for a while… as he says, he wrote more forgettable concertos for the violin and piano, but they’re also notable works we shall eventually get around to. Beginning this weekend, we have our final featured composer in our Cello & Symphony series, so do stay tuned for that!

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