The Cello Concertos of the Bohemian composer Antonín Dvorák and the English composer Sir Edward Elgar represent the summit of romantic achievement in the form. The concertante cello found a place in later Baroque repertoire, with solo cello concertos by Vivaldi, Tartini and others, leading to the classical concertos of composers in Mannheim, Vienna and Berlin and the concertos of Haydn and Boccherini. It was not until 1850 that the cello concerto received the attention of major romantic composers, with Robert Schumann's Cello Concerto of that year. Brahms paired the instrument with the violin in his Double Concerto of 1887, but it was Dvorák who in 1895 first provided a concerto in which the solo cello forms an essential part of a full symphonic texture.
The son of a village butcher-cum-inn-keeper, Dvorák made his early career as a viola-player, serving for a time under Smetana at the Czech National Theatre. By 1873, the year of his marriage to a singer in the chorus of the National Theatre, he was able to leave the orchestra in order to devote more time to composition, further security being provided by a government award given on the recommendation of Brahms and the critic Hanslick, among others. Although Dvorák, as a Bohemian, was to meet some hostility in Vienna, he established an international reputation as a composer over the following years, and in 1892 accepted the position of director of the new National Conservatory in New York. He retained this position until 1895, with a welcome and extended period of leave at home before returning in the autumn of 1894 to resume his duties.
Dvorák wrote his B minor Cello Concerto, his second attempt at the form, in America during the winter months of his new contract, at the request of his colleague in Prague, the cellist Hanus Wihan. Alter his return home, Wihan suggested various changes, including additional cadenzas written by himself, but these Dvorák adamantly rejected. The first performance of the concerto took place not in Prague but at the Queen's Hall in London on 19th March 1896, with the English-born cellist Leo Stern, who played the work on subsequent tours. Wihan first performed the concerto in public three years later, although he had in fact been the first to play through the work with the composer in the previous August. In June, after his return from America, the composer had already rewritten the ending of the work.
The first movement of the concerto opens with an orchestral exposition, the first theme played by the clarinets and restated emphatically by the rest of the orchestra before the appearance of the second theme, introduced by a solo French horn. The solo cello enters with the first theme, subject thereafter to a number of improvisatory variations, before the soloist plays the second subject. In the central development section remoter keys follow, the cello playing the principal theme in a poignantly slower version, and providing an accompaniment to further variations by the wind instruments of the orchestra. The soloist finally ushers in the last section with a repetition of the second theme, an unexpected turn of events. It is, however, the first theme that re-appears to end the movement. The slow movement opens with the principal theme played by the clarinet, accompanied by bassoons and oboes. The theme is then taken up by the solo cello. A middle section, in marked dramatic contrast, makes use of the opening phrase of a song written by Dvorák in 1887. The principal theme appears again, played by three French horns, to be followed by a cello cadenza and a brief coda. The finale of the concerto is in free rondo form, its principal theme finally appearing in its full form when the soloist enters. This theme serves as a link between a series of episodes, rich in variety and in opportunities for the soloist. The extended coda includes a reference to the opening of the first movement, played by the clarinets before the triumphant conclusion of the whole work.
For many Edward Elgar has unfairly been identified exclusively with the music of the British Empire. This imperialist reputation has been vulgarly stressed by compositions such as the Pomp and Circumstance Marches, but these may seem merely the accidents of fashion and history. Elgar's real achievement as a composer must lie in the handful of chamber works written at the end of the 1914-18 war, the two symphonies, the viol in and cello concertos and in the remarkable choral set ting of Cardinal Newman's The Dream of Gerontius. Elgar, himself a violinist of modest competence, completed his Violin Concerto in 1910. The Cello Concerto, written after the war, was influenced by the relative economy of means that the composer had discovered in his string quartet and piano quintet of the preceding year. It differs from the Violin Concerto in particular in its intense concentration of material. He worked on the composition during the summer of 1918 with the collaboration of the cellist Felix Salmond, the cellist in earlier performances of Elgar's Quartet and Piano Quintet and later an influential teacher at the Juilliard School and the Curtis Institute. The first performance was grossly under rehearsed, since the conductor of the rest of the programme, Albert Coates, described in her diary by Lady Elgar as "that brutal selfish ill-mannered bounder Coates", used rehearsal time allocated to the concerto for Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy, keeping Elgar waiting for an hour. The public reception of the work was, in consequence, luke-warm, while some critics at least correctly apportioned the blame for the inadequate first performance of a major work by the greatest of living English composers.
The first movement of Elgar's Cello Concerto opens with a grandiose statement by the soloist, leading, in almost improvisatory style, to a lilting melody announced by the violas. This is repeated by the soloist, who continues to dominate the movement. Plucked chords by the soloist lead to the second movement, a melancholy Scherzo, in which the soloist is again to the fore, with orchestration of the greatest economy. There is still greater poignancy in the brief slow movement, a continuous solo for the cello. The final Rondo opens with eight bars in which the first theme is suggested, to be interrupted by a declamatory statement from the soloist, before the movement is allowed to take its full course. Even then the excitement and joy of the principal theme are broken by references to earlier themes in the concerto and the mood of autumnal introspective melancholy that make this one of Elgar's greatest works. At the end of the score, where Haydn might have written Deo gratias, Elgar wrote the words Finis. R.I.P., intentionally or not signalling the concerto as the end of his creative life, the end of a war but also the end of an age.
ReviewsThis new recording of two of the most famous concertos for cello is another winner - Fanfare