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Dvořák: Concerto for Cello and Orchestra

Note well the distant, brooding motive in the clarinets as this concerto opens, for the end of the last movement dissolves into a long reflection on the same material as though recasting its sinister qualities in an affirmative light.It is often held that the Cello Concerto reflects its composer’s longing for his homeland, and this may in part explain the choice of keys, the melancholy, and the tendency to return again and again to his woods-and-groves idiom.But these are, of course, constituents of Dvořák’s high style, homesick or no: what is exceptional about the work is its symphonic scope and the substantial role for the orchestra, an intimate, familial relationship between the soloist and his colleagues in the ensemble.

The clarinet melody introduces the principal material of a long, rhapsodic orchestral exposition, expanding first into a grandioso statement for the full orchestra, then gradually turning to the warm and memorable second theme in the solo French horn, carried on by the solo clarinet. (this is one of the things I mean by “intimate relationship”: the cellist will have the very same second theme, but Dvořák is not afraid to have the solo winds share the limelight; it’s a wonderful moment for both the wind solosits, with many more to come.) A little polka serves to close the orchestra’s half of the exposition. The soloist, on entering, emphasizes from the first the triple stops, passagework, and leaps into extremes of register that show why the concerto is such a superb vehicle for the cellist -and how well the composer had mastered his understanding of the instrument. The cellist has a lively new transition of staccato sixteenths over bouncing bassoons, and from here on things are exquisite indeed: the throbbing oboe and bassoon at the next junction, the hushed second theme and passagework that follows it, the playful dialogue with the woodwinds, and the headlong tumble into the orchestral tutti that concludes the exposition. But for one emotional swell, the development treats the quieter elements of the given material. The recapitulation occurs in reverse order and in the major mode; in lieu of a cadenza comes a florid coda for the cellist and victorious fanfares in the brass to conclude.

The second movement, in G major, begins as a simple song form, again for the clarinet. The cellist enters to reiterate the first phrase, then joins with the clarinets in a new phrase, soaring ardently into its highest reaches to peak and then retreat, panting, into a cadence; a reprise of the opening clarinet melody commences. The full orchestra with thundering trombone and tuba banish it with a grave gesture in the minor mode, but the soloist, unfazed, reenters with another delicate melody -this one based on a Dvořák song, much beloved by his sister-in-law, whom he knew to be terminally ill. Again, the thunder interrupts; again, the soloist carries on, and finally, the French horns recapitulate the first half of the opening material. Now the cellist has the extended cadenza that was conspicuously lacking from the first movement, accompanied by all sorts of open-air warbling from the winds and distant thunder of timpani. Ever so quietly, the movement fades reluctantly away into this sylvan splendor.

The Finale opens with the approach of a sinister march, building into a great tutti with triangle. The cellist, never to be threatened, recasts the march into a resolute rondo theme. In fact, there’s little mystery, but a rather light-hearted romp with a sweet contrasting section and a single strong return of the rondo at the center. At the end, the rondo theme is expanded into a brass chorale. For a moment, pointed references to the concerto’s beginning are to be heart, but these are tamed and then swept away in the jubilant concluding bars.

For cello solo; flutes I-II, oboes I-II, clarinets I-II, bassoons I-II; horns I-III, trumpets I-II, trombones I-III, tuba; timpani, triangle; strings

Composed November 8, 1894 – February 9, 1895, primarily in New York; revised through July 11, 1895; dedicated to Hanus Wihan (1855–1920), the cellist for whom it was composed.

First performed March 19, 1896, by the London Philharmonic Society, Leo Stern, soloist; Dvořák conducting

Published by N. Simrock (Berlin, 1896). Inexpensive score: Great Romantic Cello Concertos in Full Score (New York: Dover, 1983)

Duration about 45 minutes

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