Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Romancing the Cello: Dvořák and His Concerto

(a not wintry scene with cellist)
This weekend, Zuill Bailey – who's performed frequently in the Central Pennsylvania region in the past – makes his debut with the Harrisburg Symphony in a concert that also offers us a world premiere as well as something as tried and true as a Beethoven Symphony (though not one of the most familiar ones).

In addition to the cello concerto by Antonin Dvořák, the program also includes Steve Rudolph's brand new work, The Gift (which you can read about in this earlier post) and Beethoven's Symphony No. 4 in B-flat (which you can read about in this post).

Stuart Malina conducts the concert this Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm in the Forum – and Assistant Conductor Greg Woodbridge offers the pre-concert talk an hour before each performance.

(By the way, at this point, the forecast for what has been touted as the third winter storm this week might prove to be less dreadful than feared, measured in 1-3" or less rather than in feet, as some sources had been saying since last weekend...)

Not coincidentally, you can read Ellen Hughes' article in the Harrisburg Patriot-News here.

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The Dvořák Cello Concerto is, essentially, THE cello concerto in the repertoire but it's also one of the great concertos of all time, a big expansive work in the manner of Johannes Brahms (who was, in many ways, more than just an inspiration to the younger Dvořák), a giant of the Romantic repertoire with a touching romantic story behind the music, as well.

While there are many recordings of this concerto out there, these are three I thought would give you a good idea of what you'll be hearing this weekend at the Forum.

First is one of the greatest cellists of all time, Mstislav Rostropovich, who recorded the Dvořák several times in his career. And while I'd rather post a performance you can watch (as opposed to just listen to), I can't pass up the chance to play this 1957 recording he made with Boris Khaikin and the USSR State Radio & Television Orchestra – he was 30 at the time, despite the photographs included in the video-track – and the youthful fire in this performance is hard to match, even if the sound may not be the best. Here's the first movement:
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If you'd rather watch a concert performance, here's a link to see a 1987 performance with Carlo Maria Giulini and the London Philharmonic, the orchestra that gave the work its world premiere in 1896. The sound (at least on my computer) is not great, but you get to watch a master cellist (60 at the time of this recording) playing a masterpiece.

And since the soloist you're going to hear has recorded the work on the Telarc label, here's a “sneak peek” they had posted in 2012 after that recording was released. Zuill Bailey plays the 2nd Movement with the Indianapolis Symphony conducted by Jun Markl:
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For the final movement, I chose the Danish cellist, Truls Mørk, in this 2011 performance with the Oslo Philharmonic conducted by Eivind Gullberg Jensen:

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As with any great piece of music, there are differences in interpretation which are the result of the inexact nature of musical notation – there's an old saying, “the music is not in playing the right notes, it's playing what's between the notes” – but also of long traditions which sometimes don't always pay attention to what the composer wrote.

Now, I've heard this work ever since I was a kid. In fact, the first time I heard it live was with Raya Garbusova, one of the finest cellists of her day, play it with the Harrisburg Symphony under Edwin McArthur in 1963. Every cellist worth his or her salt will have to play this piece mostly because it is the cello concerto and audiences would rather hear it than some lesser work, so much so that many cellists dread playing it (“oh, not again: can't I play something else for a change?”).

It wasn't until I heard Alban Gerhardt play it with Stuart Malina and the Harrisburg Symphony more recently (fairly early in what will come to be known as The Malina Years) that I heard performers talking about “going back to the score” and “scouring away years of tradition” which could refer to tempos, dynamics, articulation and numerous other seemingly small details.

Without knowing what they'd done, I found it a revelation – one of those instances where it may not have sounded like a “new piece” but it certainly made it a “different” one, and one I found myself enjoying a lot more.

So I'm looking forward to hearing Zuill play the piece, having heard him many times since the days of the Next Generation Festival that Ellen Hughes organized through WITF, and subsequent performances in recital, most recently with Market Square Concerts.

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Given a concert entitled “Romancing the Cello,” especially in the month of Valentine's Day, there is a romantic story behind Dvořák's Cello Concerto. So, here it is:

When Dvořák was 23, he was sharing an apartment in Prague with five other friends while earning the equivalent of $7.50 a month (at a time when, hopefully, a dollar stretched a little further than it does now). Always needing to supplement his income, he began giving piano lessons. One of his students was Josefína Čermáková whom he fell in love with. She was 16 at the time.

As a result of this love, the following year he composed a set of 18 songs he called “Cypresses,” written in 17 days.

Unfortunately, his enthusiasm was not returned and she ended up marrying somebody else. As did Dvořák, nine years later – Anna Čermáková, Josefina's sister who was also one of his students. During their marriage, they had nine children.

In 1887, Dvořák took a dozen of these “Cypress” songs and arranged them for string quartet. He called them “Echo of Songs” but didn't publish them. They appeared only in 1921, redubbed “Cypresses”.

It might be tempting to think there was something “biographical” behind this arrangement, recalling his early love for the woman who became his sister-in-law, but by this time Dvořák was (finally) tasting the first fruits of an international career and, to stave off the demand for new works of his – like the Piano Quintet in A Major – he went back and re-examined earlier works that had never been premiered or were under-performed.

The fact he didn't publish these arrangements didn't mean he kept them private, either (for that matter, Brahms' most popular works, his Hungarian Dances, were also never officially published with an opus number and all that). But still, as a man in his mid-40s, it's unlikely he didn't recall something of that lost love, right?

Five years later, Antonin Dvořák was Professor Dvořák at the National Conservatory in New York City where, in 1894, he completed what became his last symphony, nicknamed “From the New World” and a number of chamber pieces like the “American” String Quartet.

(The photograph, right, includes his wife Anna, son Antonin (Jr.), three friends, daughter Otilie and the composer, taken in New York in 1893.)

He also began this Cello Concerto (more on that later: see below). He was not only homesick but also worried the money was going to run out – not his, but the school's. And when the school could no longer pay him his salary, he returned to his home, taking with him his recently finished concerto.

In December, in the middle of the concerto's slow movement, he'd gotten the news that his sister-in-law was very ill, back home, and in the midst of this movement he inserted an excerpt from a song of his (from the Op.89 set of four) that was one of her favorites.

This occurs rather suddenly at 2:47 in the second video clip above, and continues through to the return of the opening theme at 6:03.

He arrived back in Prague in April, 1895, and Josefina died exactly one month later. He went back to the concerto and inserted another tribute to her, interrupting the rush to the final measures with this sudden lyrical reflection (in the third video clip, this would be around 9:34) which includes a further reference to the song he'd quoted in the slow movement, here as a final benediction.

The song was the first of a set written in 1887 and published as Op.82 (and not part of “Cypresses” as is sometimes said). Perhaps the confusion lies it's having been composed not long after he'd arranged the early Cypresses for string quartet, and the fact it was one of Josefina's favorites?

Anyway, it is usually entitled “Leave Me Alone” which might have a more accurate connotation if it were translated as “Let me alone.” The context is more “Don't let my dreams disturb the feelings in my heart, let me have all the joy and pain...” or, more succinctly, “let me alone with my dreams.”

Czech soprano Magdalena Hajossyova sings Dvořák's song (in German) with an uncredited pianist:
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Take from that whatever you want: it is a private moment made public without explanation and while no secret, it is never explained.

You could've listened to this for years without knowing the meaning (whatever it might be) behind the music, but you could not have missed that these are two of the most emotional moments in the entire concerto.

Romantic music, indeed!

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For some reason, there are not many cello concertos out there, unlike piano concertos and violin concertos. Neither Mozart nor Beethoven wrote one and Brahms only wrote “half a cello concerto” in his Double Concerto in A Minor for Violin and Cello which was premiered in 1887, seven years before Dvořák wrote his concerto.

Most of this has to do with the instrument itself. It has a beautiful, rich middle register but a “mumbly” lower register and an upper register than can often be too reedy or nasal which, since it was rarely (if ever) required in orchestral playing, was full of technical problems (especially intonation) for the average “section” cellist.

Part of this problem was balance: the sound of a solo instrument didn't project well through an orchestra, certainly not as the size of the orchestra expanded after 1800 or so.

The early cello concertos from the Baroque and Classical eras, of course, would not have had this to deal with. It may have been more a matter of discrimination against an instrument usually relegated to playing the bass-line in a melody-oriented approach to music.

Vivaldi wrote about 27 cello concertos for his orphans in Venice, but then it seemed he wrote concertos for almost anything. They had no influence on the wider world, intended primarily for the regular concerts his students gave at the orphanage and were, like the rest of his music, forgotten until the 20th Century rediscovered him.

Boccherini wrote eleven concertos but then he was himself a virtuoso cellist and famous in his day. But like many composers not quite of the level of contemporaries like Haydn or Mozart, he too was overlooked if not forgotten. In fact, even the one cello concerto that did survive was known primarily through an over-romanticized edition in the late-19th Century. Even as a child dreaming of playing the cello in the 1960s, I was very disappointed to discover the Boccherini Concerto I knew and loved was in fact two different concertos, since Grützmacher replaced the original slow movement with one he liked better from another concerto. Even today, I am still nostalgic for that bowdlerized version even though there's very little authentic about it.

While Haydn wrote perhaps seven concertos for the cello, only one was known to posterity – the D Major Concerto – until another one (in C Major, written earlier) was discovered only in 1961! Even then, there have been quibbles about their authenticity since Haydn was not much of a concerto writer (unlike Mozart) and these are markedly different than other concertos he'd composed. Perhaps he had considerable help from the principal cellists of the Esterhazy orchestra for whom he composed them but most scholars now agree that, yes, Haydn did write those concertos.

Robert Schumann wrote a beautiful cello concerto in 1850 that has two lyrical movements with a finale that smacks of the composer's origins as a pianist. One of Schumann's later works, from a time when his health was inconsistent, it has never stayed in the general repertoire, either, perhaps because it is not brilliant enough to be a virtuoso vehicle.

Leaving aside two by Saint-Saëns and one by Lalo, that's about it – the rest are mostly by performers who, great cellists they may be, were not great composers. At least Tchaikovsky wrote a short piece for solo cello and small orchestra based on a Mozart-like melody, his famous Variations on a Rococo Theme.

And then Antonin Dvořák found himself, much to his surprise, writing a cello concerto of his own. Why, you ask?

There is, actually, an early cello concerto by Antonin Dvořák written when he was 23 – curiously, around the time he met his young piano students, Josefina and Anna, the one he fell in love with and the one he'd later marry. But he never published it – in fact, never really finished it: he gave it to a cellist friend to look at but never bothered to orchestrate it or revise it. Perhaps the friend didn't think it was all that good?

Anyway, Dvořák, in his early-50s, was sitting in Carnegie Hall, New York, not long after the premiere of his “New World” Symphony listening to cellist Victor Herbert play the first performance of his new cello concerto. Herbert would become conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony but better known as a composer of operettas but at this time, he was better known as a cellist and conductor: at the time, in his mid-30s, he was the Assistant Conductor of the New York Philharmonic.

Dvořák was very impressed by Herbert's playing and by his concerto – No. 2 in E Minor, by the way – and it made him reconsider the frequent request made by his friend, Hanus Wihans, a cellist in Prague, who'd been asking him for a concerto. He'd played chamber music with Wihans and written a couple shorter, less “problematic” pieces (regarding the “cello problem,” that is) the previous year, a Rondo in G Minor and a short tone-poem of sorts usually called “Silent Woods.”

Where this concerto came from is a surprise of its own. He had composed a not very successful piano concerto that has gone through several editions as pianists try to improve on the piano writing (Dvořák was not a pianist), and a violin concerto that, while very fine, has never quite ended up in the higher reaches of the repertoire (more's the pity) – here, it's performed by his great-grandson, Josef Suk). The ability to write good symphonies (and by this time he'd completed all nine of those, at least two of which are certainly "good") does not necessarily mean he'd be able to write good concertos.

He was, of course, familiar with Brahms' epic Violin Concerto (an obvious inspiration, as well) which was premiered two years before. And Brahms' Double Concerto was premiered in 1887 – Victor Herbert would be involved in its American premiere the following year, by the way.

But he had managed to solve the problem of balancing the different registers of the instrument with a large orchestra in such a way Brahms himself was supposed to have told Dvořák, if he'd known it could be done that well, he would've written one himself. Alas, by that time, Brahms was already “retired” and suffered from doubts about his creativity following the cool reception among his friends for not only the Double Concerto but the 4th Symphony, leading the always insecure Brahms to destroy what would've become a 5th Symphony and a 2nd Violin Concerto.

Perhaps it was a good thing at this time that Dvořák was isolated in New York City where he was a very big fish in a very small pond!

There is sometimes a fine line between what a work becomes and what it could have been – witness all the works Johannes Brahms destroyed in his career or that Schubert never finished.

In this case, if Dvořák hadn't been in New York, he would not have met Victor Herbert or heard his cello concerto which he'd find so inspiring.

If he'd stayed in Prague and been closer to Brahms and the often snarky music scene in Vienna (where Dvořák, being a Bohemian “provincial”, was always an outsider), he might have persisted in his doubts about the cello as a viable solo instrument and might never have written this concerto.

Now, there's a game of “what-if” I don't want to think about...

- Dick Strawser

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