Finding Dvorak's Cello Concerto

It was a most pleasant surprise when my fellow cellist Emmanuelle Bertrand invited me to play at the opening concert of her 2016 Beauvais Cello Festival. Even more so when she asked me to play the Dvorak Concerto. Being invited by a colleague made me take this as a fascinating challenge to see if my experience of working with living composers might bring something fresh out of the most well known of Cello Concertos.

I studied the piece some 30 years ago with three of my teachers: William Pleeth, Jacqueline du Pré and Tibor de Machula. By now my memories of those lessons are already somewhat confused. I remember details from each of the teachers, but I always felt that it was going to be up to me to decide one day what was the Dvorak that I should play. I played the piece only a few times during the following 30 years, rather tamely without really studying it anew. Now the moment finally arrived to get to the task.

The first thing I did was to find the latest Bärenreiter Urtext edition and compared it with the old "Urtext" edition that I had used as a student. At first the differences seemed not very important, but after a while I realised that especially in the solo part there was hardly a measure that was exactly like in the earlier editions. And the closer I looked, the
more evident it became that even the things that hadn't changed are often not respected. What has become some kind of tradition has little to do with what Dvorak actually wrote.

I spent 8 months studying the new edition, practicing, listening to every possible recording starting from the very first ones by Emmanuel Feuermann and Pablo Casals up to the latest versions by cellists much younger than I. The first thing I noticed was the amazing lengthening of the piece from Feuermann's 33:30 to sometimes more than 45 minutes. Even between the recordings of two of my own teachers, Tibor de Machula and Jacqueline du Pré there is a difference of over 10 minutes. I had to find out where all that disagreement came from.

Somewhere in the 1960's string players noticed that audiences react well to two things, stretching the tempo and avoiding dynamics except for as loud as possible and as soft as possible. It also became common to announce a surprise by slowing down before it or higlighting an emotion with an extreme dynamic. Subtleties like trusting the written dynamics, expressions or tempos seem not to be enough today.

It seems to me that more and more cellists make their decisions about tempos according to what feels effective rather than thinking what the piece requires, ignoring the composer's indications. And when someone has played one passage very slowly, the next cellist tries if it could be done even slower for even more effect.

Many interpretations are reactions or a commentary to other interpretations rather than attempts to understand the composer's visions. They are also built from details up rather than from the architecture down to the details.

Understanding architecture

I used to wonder why there are performers who manage to give a strong sense of form and inevitability to their performances. In a piece like this it seems to me that this has to do at least to a large part with how one treats the tempo. It can also be done through giving sections similarity in character, but in some way one needs to give the listener a feeling of recognition of similarity and difference.

In the Concerto the tempo changes frequently, sometimes through slowing down or speeding up, often suddenly. For example the first movement has a main tempo of (116), three sections that are marked to slow down to (100) and one piu mosso in the coda to (132). If one observes that the sostenuto sections are in the same tempo one has a feeling of recognition of the tempo, even if each section has its own emotional content. If, on the other hand, one gives in to the temptation to play the second sostenuto section much slower than the others, one important feeling of familiarity disappears. The question is not of being academic about the metronimical difference between the main section and the sostenuto. One needs to feel the similarity in the difference.

Another detail that has contributed to the lengthening of the piece is the way all the transitions are done by slowing down. Dvorak is very clear in writing many ritenutos and a few molto ritenutos, but also very clear to not write ritenuto for many transitions. Observing the difference between all of these once again changes the piece dramatically. It is perfectly natural to make some of these transitions straightforward, but cellist's instincts generally ask for a rounding off or announcing a transition in
advance. The most interesting example is in the slow movement; the poco accelerando that starts in ms. 30 can seem confusing, because while it is very passionate and gets faster, Dvorak also asks a diminuendo and then drops to a sudden Tempo I. Dropping into a slower tempo after getting faster and softer seems to be a contradiction, but why should it be?.

The differences in dynamics in the new Urtext edition are sometimes very subtle, sometimes surprisingly drastic. In the first movement the end of the famous arpeggio passage finishes with a crescendo rather than the well known diminuendo and (unwritten) ritenuto. In the slow movement the several little crescendos and diminuendos have been shifted (ms 13, 16, 80, 120 etc.) first some of them seems to go against the orchestras dynamics, but in this performance at least I felt they were perfectly natural.

In the last movement there is again one main tempo (104) and this time two slightly different slower sections (92 and 84). In between one should feel the familiarity of the return to the original tempo. The most rarely observed return to the main tempo is in the coda, which is mostly already begun in a slower tempo and then taken to such extremes of slowness that in the end, when Dvorak finally writes molto ritenuto one can't possible slow down any more. Dvorak's indication is to start In Tempo (104) and slow down in two stages (to 84 and 76).

Leave me alone!

In fact, in the Coda of the last movement Dvorak does something absolutely unique. It is well known that he completely re-composed it after hearing of the death of his dear sister-in-law Josefina. The music gradually slows down until a solo violin quotes Josefina's favorite song, appropriately entitled "Leave me alone". The cello reacts, growing stronger, climbs and rebels, while the destiny can be understood from the trumpets and timpani, the cello eventually descends to a long f-sharp, where it is indeed left alone. Dvorak indicates no ritenuto until one measure before the lonely note, the time stops (Dvorak indicates a molto ritenuto on the long note) and the orchestra dies away (with the indication morendo - dying!) before the final dramatic burst.

One can see from the different sources that Dvorak struggled with countless variants of the indications to get this ending just right. Soon after this Concerto Dvorak moved from writing abstract orchestral music and preferred symphonic poems with very strong programmatic stories, it is not suprising that his need to tell a story is already there at this dramatic moment of his life.

Observing carefully the written instructions doesn't mean giving up on freedom, quite the contrary. It is so much easier to feel free when one has as much information as possible about the world behind the notes.

It is not simple to play such a well known piece differently than the existing tradition. After building one's own conviction one needs to discuss them with the conductor and finally get it all together in the absolute minimal rehearsal time. Because, since everyone "knows" the piece, there is no justification to get any extra rehearsal time, rather the opposite. And the result is likely to be a combination of several worlds until everyone has become accustomed to the new version. Change is a long process, patience is in the end the virtue that really matters. And meanwhile, what is the audience supposed to think of all this?

Reading about the sources of the Cello Concerto makes it clear that the collaboration between Dvorak and Wihan was much closer than is generally known. Wihan made many corrections directly into the manuscript and it is sometimes not possible to know who came up with the final version.This rings some very interesting bells in my own head. I know that one day some future musicologists will have at least as much trouble with many pieces with which I have been involved as a first (or second) performer. This makes me ever more convinced that knowing all the music and understanding the style of a composer are vital in understanding anything that one sees on paper.

Anssi Karttunen, 4.6.2016, Paris

A link to my similar study of the Schumann Concerto


Dvorak: Cello Concerto op.104

Hanus Wihan, Dvorak and Ferdinand Lachner

photos: ©Muriel von Braun

The many variants of the end of the coda. Deciding exactly where and how to indicate the ritenuto was obviously not an easy task..