Hyperion Records

Cello Concerto in B minor, Op 104
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The birth of the world’s most beloved cello concerto came as something of a shock to its father. On 10 December 1894 Dvorák wrote to his friend Alois Göbl: ‘I have actually finished the first movement of a Concerto for violoncello!! Don’t be surprised about this, I too am amazed and surprised enough that I was so determined on such work.’ In fact, the concerto was almost written for the piano or violin, for both of which Dvorák had already written concertos. According to his son Otakar, Dvorák disliked the cello, ‘since it sounded too much like muttering’; he felt that it was heard to best advantage in the orchestra and in chamber music rather than as a solo instrument. (It is curious how otherwise intelligent men can be so deluded at times.) For the concerto’s eventual instrumentation we have to thank the insistent Czech cellist who inspired and even collaborated on the work’s composition, Hanuš Wihan (1855–1920). But we also have to be grateful to three rather disparate and unexpected sources of musical inspiration: a glorious series of waterfalls; an Irish-American writer of musical comedies; and an ailing Czech Countess.

Dvorák spent most of the time between late 1892 and early 1895 in America, teaching at the newly formed National Conservatory of Music in New York. In 1893, on his way back to New York after a blissful summer spent among the Czech community in Spillville, Iowa, he visited Niagara Falls. It was reported that Dvorák, having stood for five minutes as though hypnotized, exclaimed: ‘Lord God, this will become a symphony in B minor.’ (Thirty-five years later, Maurice Ravel visited the Falls, and is said to have announced: ‘Quel majestueux si bémol!’—‘What a majestic B flat!’. Was this drop of a semitone an early symptom of global warming?) Dvorák’s epiphany did not result in a symphony (his final work in that genre, the Symphony No 9 in E minor, ‘From the New World’, was pretty much complete by that point); but the grandeur, heroism and nobility of the Cello Concerto in B minor could perhaps stem from that pivotal moment.

Some months later, Dvorák’s ideas about the failings of the cello as a solo instrument were challenged when he attended a concert in which the Irish-American cellist and composer Victor Herbert, better known for musical comedies such as Babes in Toyland, performed his own second Cello Concerto. Here was a lyrical work in which the cello sang out over the orchestra; Herbert described how Dvorák embraced him after the performance, insisting with characteristically loud-voiced enthusiasm that the concerto was ‘famos! famos!—ganz famos!’. And then, once he had embarked on his own concerto, Dvorák’s inspiration was intensified in a poignant way when he learned of the illness of his sister-in-law Josefina, the Countess Kounic, back in Bohemia. Dvorák, like several composers before him (Mozart and Haydn among them), had been in love with his wife’s sister before settling on his wife Anna. Indeed, his feelings may not have changed that much over the years; his great-grandson, ‘Tony’ Dvorák, reported in the 1990s that the family were still gossiping about the relationship. Be that as it may, Josefina’s fate was to have a strong effect on this concerto.

If the genesis of the concerto was somewhat convoluted, its subsequent history was even more so. Dvorák began to sketch the work in November 1894, making a false start in D minor before settling on B minor; the concerto in its original form was completed by 9 February 1895 (Otakar’s birthday—a nice present!). There were to be many subsequent revisions, however, several of them made in collaboration with Wihan, who advised Dvorák on the virtuoso passages in the solo part. Most of these suggestions, written into the manuscript copy by Wihan himself, have become generally accepted (even though Dvorák insisted that in certain passages his original ideas remain in the printed edition as ‘ossias’). But Dvorák drew the line when Wihan tried to insert a cadenza into the last movement. Writing to his publisher, Simrock, Dvorvák raged: ‘I shall only give you the work if you promise that no one, including my respected friend Wihan, makes alterations without my knowledge and consent; also not [i.e. do not print] the cadenza which Wihan has put into the last movement—it must stay in its original form, as I felt and imagined it.’ (Quite right, too: apart from being totally superfluous, Wihan’s cadenza is pretty horrible—and fiendishly difficult. Not a good combination.)

Nevertheless, Dvorák intended that the premiere of the concerto, to take place in London on 19 March 1896, would be given by Wihan. In the event, though, Wihan was otherwise engaged on that date; and Dvorák, having at first protested to the impresario (‘I am sorry to announce you that I cannot conduct the performance of the celo conzerto. The reason is I have promised to my friend Wihan—he will play it’), accepted an English cellist, Leo Stern. Stern was also engaged for the Prague premiere some three weeks later. One imagines that Wihan must have been chewing his carpet, especially since he had already given a private performance of the concerto with Dvorák at the piano some months before; but Stern seems to have done everything in his power to please Dvorák—including trying to learn Czech, and even sending Dvorák some rare pigeons (pigeons being, along with trains, boats and beer, among the composer’s abiding passions). And so Stern won out, probably through sheer determination (how little the music world has changed!); and Wihan had to wait until 1899 for his sole performance of the concerto under the composer’s baton, in Budapest.

About the concerto itself, little need be said; the power of its emotional journey, expressed with Dvorák’s characteristically folk-like simplicity and directness, sweeps aside all description. The orchestral writing, with particularly prominent parts for solo flute and clarinet, is as commanding as that in Dvorák’s symphonies. From the portentous opening, through the magical appearance of the second subject in the horn (from about 2'13''), the cello’s heroic entry in B major (at 3'31''), the thrilling start of the recapitulation with a soaring transformation of the second subject (11'12''), to its triumphant ending, the first movement offers an irresistible mix of the epic and the touchingly confessional.

In the G major second movement one can surely feel Dvorák’s homesickness for his beloved Bohemia. Nostalgia and a love of nature seem to frame every note, particularly in the gentle opening theme, and in the birdsong we hear in the accompanied cadenza (from 7'20'') that adorns the return of the first section. It is in this movement, too, that we feel Josefina’s presence most strongly: in the central minore section Dvorák quotes from a song of his own that Josefina had always loved—Lasst mich allein (Leave me alone), Op 82 No 1 (from 2'50'').

The finale is a large-scale rondo blessed, as the programme note for the first performance put it, with a ‘well-nigh embarrassing plenitude of subject matter’. Well, perhaps not embarrassing; but certainly Dvorák conjures theme after theme of ravishing beauty—including a third subject in the slow movement’s pastoral key of G major (at 5'59'') imbued with a sense of home-coming that, had the concerto remained in its original form, would have impelled the work towards a joyous conclusion.

The end of the concerto was to undergo a transformation, however. A month after Dvorák returned to Bohemia, Josefina died; and in her memory he extended the final coda with reminiscences from both the first and second movements—including another quotation from her beloved song, this time played by a solo violin, along with flute and clarinets (10'45''). Even in retrospect, this alters the overall impression of the concerto; a work that might have come across as largely celebratory is layered with a sense of farewell. It is interesting to compare this coda with another deeply moving end to a cello concerto, that by Elgar. With the latter, one can feel that the coda is an essential part of the overall plan; with Dvorák’s one is perhaps aware that it is an afterthought—but it is none the less heart-rending for that.

from notes by Steven Isserlis © 2013

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