This was the second of a triptych of concerts in Baden-Baden centred around the Russian cellist Mischa Maisky, who played here with the Bamberger Symphoniker and Jonathan Nott in an all-Dvořák programme.
Dvořák's Cello Concerto in B minor is his final large-scale orchestral canvas, and justly celebrated as one of his finest achievements. It is by some distance the most often-performed cello concerto, and after having heard it Brahms was famously reported to have said: "If only I had known such a concerto was possible for the cello, I would have tried it myself". Other stories about its inception and composition are repeated endlessly in programme notes: that Dvořák had recently visited the Niagara falls and proclaimed that it would become a Symphony in B minor; that the second movement contains a reference to "Lass mich allein", the favourite song of his first love Josefina Čermakova, who during its composition Dvořák had discovered was seriously ill; that on learning of Josefina's death, Dvořák substantially altered the finale, providing it with the most wistful and achingly beautiful coda he ever composed, before its triumphant major climax.
Even without these painful personal details, we would sense the unusually intimate and personal nature of this concerto, its autumnal warmth and nostalgic glow quite alien to the traditional romantic view of the concerto. Of course, it is also a grand symphonic statement in itself, magnificent even by Dvořák's standards, with his gift as a melodist and mastery as an orchestrator both as evident and consummate as ever.
After the extended orchestral introduction with its gorgeous horn solo, here gloriously played, Maisky entered so violently that the quality of his tone was seriously compromised. The second subject also lacked beauty, as here (and throughout) Maisky failed to deliver a convincing legato, instead choosing to emphasise and underline individual notes with accents, tenutos and portatos of his own divising. His vibrato also marred the line by being alternately extremely wide, and then almost non-existent. In a quixotic choice, he opted to use the passagework originally notated by Dvořák, which survives still in sketches and one of the manuscripts, rather than the standard passagework devised by Dvořák's cellist friend Hanuš Wihan and approved by Dvořák before publication (after Dvořák had very firmly denied many other suggestions from Wihan). As a result of these mannerisms and interventions, the performance was rendered devoid of true feeling and the overarching form of the work was lost. Beautiful woodwind solos from the orchestra notwithstanding, Nott was unable to save this from becoming what felt by the end like "the Maisky show".
Dvořák's Symphony no. 7 in D minor was composed in 1885 soon after he had heard Brahms' Third. The influence in this work of his elder colleague and friend is often commented on and perhaps overstated – though there are correspondences in terms seriousness of purpose, extraordinary density of motive, and architectual unity. The broodingly dark orchestral pallette, pained (or is that erotic?) arching chromaticism of the melodic lines, and powerful feeling of accumulative forward momentum also put in mind Wagner, and (intentional or unintentional) there is even a quotation from Tristan. But of course, these influences remain just that, and for a composer of genius like Dvořák they are transformed into something entirely personal and utterly new: we are never in any doubt that this is a symphony by Dvořák with its piquant Czech rhythms, apparently bottomless well of musical invention and singularly beautiful orchestration.
Nott lead his orchestra in a tightly controlled and extremely detailed performance of this most phantasmagoric and technically challenging of Dvořák's symphonies, each movement unfurling with an intensity of purpose that kept one on tenterhooks throughout. It wasn't lacking in passion, either, where it was needed, and the devastating coda was shattering in its impact. In the second movement, gleaming wind solos drifted out over the hushed susurrus of orchestral strings, masterful playing from all. In a performance such as this, we might be tempted to say once and for all that this is Dvořák's finest symphony.
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