Thursday, May 14, 2015

Concerto Guide: Dvořák, Cello Concerto in B minor, op. 104

I have been looking around for a good concerto from the 1880s, but haven't run across one, so if a reader has a suggestion, leave it in the comments. I might pop back and take up the Brahms Double Concerto, composed in 1887. So I am jumping to the 1890s, 1895 to be precise, when Dvořák completed his Cello Concerto. This was certainly not the first cello concerto as Vivaldi alone wrote a couple of dozen, C. P. E. Bach wrote a few, Haydn a couple, Boccherini (himself a cello virtuoso) wrote another dozen and there are isolated examples by Tartini and Stamitz. But it is safe to say that before the Dvořák concerto none of these had achieved any widespread popularity.

Dvořák himself was reluctant to compose a concerto for cello for a long time because of concerns about its viability as a solo instrument against a full orchestra. Bear in mind that all the previous concertos for solo cello were for fairly small orchestra, not the large romantic orchestra that Dvořák wrote for. He may have finally been convinced by hearing a couple of performances of a cello concerto written by Victor Herbert in New York where Dvořák was directing the National Conservatory. In any case, he took up the task and delivered the first great cello concerto that established the genre and prompted many other composers in the 20th century to write concertos for the cello.

The piece is substantial, about the same length as the Beethoven Violin Concerto. It follows the usual fast-slow-fast three movement form. Dvořák follows the example of Beethoven and Brahms in giving a full orchestral tutti before the soloist enters. The orchestra gets to present all the main themes, which the cello then re-presents. If not well-written, this might feel redundant, but the cello part is so resonant and richly ornamented that it is not a problem. Indeed, you might start to think that the typical romantic ploy of giving a big bombastic opening to the solo instrument as we have seen in Grieg, Tchaikovsky and others, is just a bit gimmicky.

Here is the first theme, vaguely folk-like sounding because of the lowered 7th degree, given to the clarinet in A:



And here is how the cello presents that same theme (bass clef):



Here is a lyric theme first given to the horns:



And here is how the cello handles that theme (beginning in bass clef):



I won't go picking apart the rest of this lovely concerto. As is usual with Dvořák the themes are song-like and memorable. There is an inherent lyricism in this concerto, even though the cello part is very virtuosic with some very high registers and some difficult double-stopping.

Here is a great performance by Jacqueline du Pré, the uniquely talented cellist whose career ended tragically young, at age 28, when she contracted multiple sclerosis.



8 comments:

Rickard Dahl said...

It's a pretty nice concerto. There are some parts in each movement that I don't like though. It seems like sometimes the virtuosity takes over at the expense of the substance.

Bryan Townsend said...

Dvořák was one of the first composers I fell in love with, based on his New World Symphony. But I find he doesn't stand up quite as well over time as some others. There are only a couple of really fine pieces by him and yes, sometimes one wonders about the substance.

David said...

Bryan, what are your thoughts/views on Dvorak's string quartets? Are any of them in the "fine pieces" group?

By the way, thanks for your devotion and hard work on this blog. It should be required reading for anyone with love of, or interest in, classical music.

David

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, David! I am far from well-acquainted with Dvorak's string quartets, though I have heard a few in concert. The American Quartet, #12, is quite nice and quite popular. It seems to me to have a strong gospel influence in the themes. It is pretty well written. The problem for all the 19th century composers of string quartets is that the standard, set by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven is so dizzyingly high that they never quite came up to it. Not even Brahms, who certainly tried. While the Dvorak String Quartet #12 has lots of charm, it seems more sentimental than profound. At least to this listener!

David, would you mind if I quoted part of your comment?

Rickard Dahl said...

Ah, the American Quartet. It's one of the best string quartets in general in my opinion. It's very beautiful.

Bryan Townsend said...

It is very nice, yes. But I hesitate to offer an opinion on the rest of his quartets because I don't really know them. And as I discovered, listening to all the Dvorak symphonies, it is entirely possible that most of them are not so good!

David said...

Bryan, feel free to quote me as you like.

David

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, David.