Dvořák’s Cello Concerto with Steven Isserlis and Alan Gilbert

19 Apr 2009

Berliner Philharmoniker
Alan Gilbert

Steven Isserlis

  • Antonín Dvořák
    The Noon Witch, op. 108 (17 min.)

  • Antonín Dvořák
    Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in B minor, op. 104 (43 min.)

    Steven Isserlis cello

  • Bohuslav Martinů
    Symphony No. 4 (39 min.)

  • free

    Alan Gilbert in conversation with Emmanuel Pahud (11 min.)

In April 2009, Alan Gilbert conducted Czech compositions with the Berliner Philharmoniker which were composed in his native city of New York: Antonín Dvořák’s Cello Concerto and Bohuslav Martinů’s Fourth Symphony. The two composers took up residence in their temporary home in the United States for very different reasons, however. Whereas Dvořák accepted a well-paid position in the up-and-coming musical centre of New York in 1892, at the height of his international fame, Martinů left Paris and crossed the Atlantic, fleeing the invading National Socialists.

Martinů began work on his Fourth Symphony in 1945, during the last months of the Second World War, and completed it a few weeks after the unconditional surrender of the Nazi regime. In Alan Gilbert’s opinion, the work should be understood as a musical reflection of this event in world history. The second movement depicts the horror of war, and the finale, relief in view of the hoped-for peace. The electrifying work by the still-underrated composer exhibits structural features of the Baroque concerto grosso as well as ingeniously used elements of French Impressionism.

Of the few important cello concertos in the repertoire, Dvořák’s contribution to the genre stands out because of its inexhaustible melodic richness and radiant late Romantic tone. The concerto was composed as the last work in a tremendously productive American creative phase, although the premiere did not take place until 1896 in London, after the composer had returned to Europe. During the subsequent years Dvořák again devoted himself increasingly to opera and, emulating Franz Liszt, also composed a series of symphonic poems. The Philharmoniker and Alan Gilbert opened the concert with one of these works, The Noon Witch, which is based on a gruesome fairy tale. The soloist for the concert was Steven Isserlis – “Britain’s greatest cellist”, according to The Telegraph – whose repertoire comprises compositions ranging from Baroque to contemporary music.

Symphonic Concerto and Concertante Symphony

Works by Dvořák and Martinů

Antonín Dvořák is frequently identified only with his symphonies, the cello and violin concertos, the Slavonic Dances and a few overtures. In fact, he wrote a whole series of further orchestral works which, among other things, form an important complement to his symphonies. Outstanding among these are the symphonic poems The Water Goblin, The Noon Witch, The Golden Spinning-Wheel and The Wild Dove, which are based on ballads by Karel Jaromír Erben (1811–1870). Dvořák envisaged a group of such tone poems from the outset, and in 1896 he composed three of them in succession, referring to them as a “first series”. The Wild Dove followed later that year and, finally, in 1897 he produced the Hero’s Song, after his own text. These works were created during a period of intense preoccupation with programme music, especially works by Franz Liszt and the early tone poems of Richard Strauss.

The Noon Witch op.108 has been plausibly described (by the musicologist and composer Jarmil Burghauser) as a “miniature symphony” in four connected parts. Dvořák does not recount Erben’s ballad in detail, instead concentrating on the main elements of the conflict it describes. The work opens with the depiction of a peaceful domestic scene at midday, disturbed only by a child’s irritating screams (played by the oboe). His mother warns him that if he does not calm down by twelve o’clock the Noon Witch will come and carry him off. In the second, slow section of the work, a dark, striding, highly dissonant motif depicts the terrifying Witch herself. In the scherzo-like section that follows, she makes her claim with an eerie dance around the Mother and Child. The Mother becomes deathly afraid (wailing cries on woodwind) and holds the Child fast. But as the clock strikes twelve, the Witch snatches the Child and rushes out with a piercing shriek of triumph. Returning home, the Father discovers the calamity. At the end, the Mother’s wailing is combined with the Witch’s triumphant cries.

The Cello Concerto in B minor op.104 was composed during the brief but, from an artistic standpoint, highly fruitful period that Dvořák spent in the USA. It was with some hesitation that he accepted the lucrative offer to become director of the National Conservatory of Music. He arrived in New York in September 1892 with his wife and two of their six children and, after a productive two and a half years of teaching, composing and conducting, returned to Europe in early 1895.

The last work he wrote in America was the Cello Concerto, about which Brahms reportedly exclaimed: “Why in the world didn’t I know that one could write such a cello concerto? If I’d only known, I should long ago have written one myself.” Dvořák began its composition in 1894 and completed it after revising the finale in July 1895. He dedicated the concerto to his friend, the cellist Hanuš Wihan, but put his foot down when his publishers Simrock informed him of Wihan’s intention of adding his own cadenza to the finale. The premiere was given in London by the Philharmonic Society on 19 March 1896, with Dvořák conducting, but with Leo Stern, not Wihan, as soloist.

The opening Allegro is in classical sonata form, beginning with a full orchestral introduction in which the two basic thematic ideas are formulated. The heroic first theme is first presented by the clarinets alone, then together with the bassoons, before the expressive second theme is introduced by a solo horn. The cello soloist enters resolutely, “quasi improvvisando”, with a decorated version of the first theme and leads it up the horn theme. The recapitulation begins, somewhat unconventionally, with the subsidiary idea rather than the first theme.

The second movement, a three-part Adagio in G major, intimate and contemplative in character, begins with the clarinet, accompanied by oboes and bassoons. After seven bars, the solo cello takes up the theme and further develops it. The agitated second section contains a touching contrasting idea, a quotation from Dvořák’s song “Leave me alone to my dreams”; this is a love-song to his sister-in-law Josefina Kounicová (Čermaková), with whom he had been in love many years earlier and who lay mortally ill as he composed the concerto. In the finale, an Allegro moderato in rondo form, the orchestral introduction begins quietly but then powerfully intensifies; it anticipates the sharp rhythmic profile of the main theme, which is later presented in complete form by the solo instrument. The work concludes with a coda which recalls both the main theme of the first movement and the song quotation from the second movement (in memory of his sister-in-law, who died before Dvořák completed the concerto).

There is an element of tragedy in the fact that the works of the highly esteemed Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů have never quite found a home in central European concert halls. Their significance is far greater than their relative lack of familiarity might suggest. Dvořák remains much more popular, while Janáček is thought to be a more interesting exponent of “modern” music. Martinů’s biography resembles Dvořák’s – in origins, career path and years in the USA – as well as being typical of eastern European composers who, seeking to escape the restrictiveness of their homeland, found success abroad but also confronted the problems posed by emigration.

Martinů wrote more than 400 works, contributing to virtually every genre. His stylistic development is remarkable. During his brief compositional studies with Josef Suk, he was strongly influenced by late Romanticism but also by French Impressionism. After moving to Paris to study with Albert Roussel, he fell under the spell not only of neo-classicism but jazz as well. Martinů’s own “language” evolved from around 1930, fuelled by his powerful interest in earlier music from various periods. He found a valuable compositional approach in the Baroque concerto grosso. Later, with the creation of his symphonies in the USA, where he lived from 1941 to 1956, Martinů’s music took on greater freedom and individuality, in both form and thematic process. In his final European works, impressionistic features again become prominent.

The Symphony No. 4 was composed between April and June 1945 in New York City and Cape Cod and was premiered on 30 November of that year by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy. Its first movement (Poco Moderato) is based on two brief, single-bar cells, one described by the composer as lyrical in character, the other as being marked by rhythmic semiquaver (16th-note) motion in 6/8 time. The same elements, according to Martinů’s original programme note, appear in different variations and transformations, according to the requirements of the musical structure, which is not the customary sonata form but corresponds rather to the outline a-b-A-B-coda.

Martinů called the second movement, a lively scherzo (Allegro vivo) in three parts, again in 6/8 time, more fantastic than the first, with abrupt shifts and constant quick triplet motion in the strings as a kind of background. The rhythmically irregular main theme is heard in brief expositions on bassoons and muted trumpets, then in unison played by the bassoons, flutes, oboes and clarinets. The melody is developed by the English horn (cor anglais) against a background of rhythmic string motion. Everything strives without interruption towards the forte statement of the whole orchestra.

The following Largo, in free three-part form, gives the impression with its extended string melody (according to musicologist Harry Halbreich) of a single great melodic arch. Here the composer adopts the concerto grosso principle: in the course of the movement, a concertino of solo strings (two violins and a cello) splits off from the orchestral tutti. In the finale (Poco Allegro), Martinů returns to classical sonata form with two contrasting themes, which are varied and presented in reverse order when repeated. Wind figures, supported only by the piano, open the movement. Not until the strings’ entrance does the thematic development begin. This movement, according to the composer, is a sort of formal consolidation and condensation of the whole symphony.

Alan Gilbert has been principal guest conductor of the North German Radio Symphony Orchestra of Hamburg since the autumn of 2004. From the start of the 2009/10 season he will be the first native New Yorker to serve as music director of the New York Philharmonic. He was still very young when his parents taught him to play the violin, after which he studied composition at Harvard and the violin at the New England Conservatory of Music. After further studies at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and at the Juilliard School of Music in New York, he spent several years working as a violinist and viola player, changing to conducting only in 1995. Between January 2000 and June 2008 he was principal conductor and artistic adviser to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in Stockholm, an institution with which he remains closely associated in his capacity as conductor emeritus. He has also worked as a guest conductor in many of the world’s leading opera houses and has additionally appeared with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestre de Paris, the London Philharmonic, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, the Tonhalle Orchestra of Zurich, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester in Berlin and prominent orchestras in the United States and Japan. Alan Gilbert first appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in February 2006, when he conducted symphonies by Brahms and Schumann. Among the honours that he has received are the Georg Solti Award, the Seaver/National Endowment for the Arts Conductors’ Award and membership of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music.

The English cellist Steven Isserlis was born into a family of musicians. In the course of his international concert career he has devoted himself with equal enthusiasm to early music, Classical and Romantic works and to the contemporary repertory: not only has he appeared with leading Baroque orchestras and ensembles but has also recorded Sir John Tavener’s The Protecting Veil for cello and orchestra (the piece is dedicated to him) and gave the world premiere of Wolfgang Rihm’s Cello Concerto at the 2006 Salzburg Festival. Among the orchestras with which Steven Isserlis has appeared as a soloist are the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Czech Philharmonic, the Philharmonia and the London Philharmonic, while the conductors with whom he has worked include Sir Charles Mackerras, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Charles Dutoit and Christoph Eschenbach. He made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in late January 1999, performing Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor op. 85 under the direction of Christoph Eschenbach. His manifold musical activities also include appearances as a chamber recitalist, planning concert programmes, teaching at leading academies and writing scholarly articles and music books for children. In the autumn of 2007 the Alte Oper in Frankfurt showcased his work in a special series of concerts. Steven Isserlis plays on the Feuermann cello made by Antonio Stadivarius in 1730, an instrument placed at his disposal by the Nippon Music Foundation.

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