Overcoming years of reservations for an instrument he didn’t quite see as having what it took to merit soloist treatment, Antonín Dvořák finally found motivation to write his only cello concerto – he never finished one he had begun composing early in his career. Motivation came in the form of a fellow composer and teacher at the National Conservatory in New York, Victor Herbert, who premiered a concerto for this very instrument. Dvořák was among those who heard it, and he immediately went on to write his own while still in New York. He would return to Europe soon after where, among other things, he would stand in front of the Czech Philharmonic as it performed its first-ever concert.

Truls Mørk © Morten Krogvold | Virgin Classics
Truls Mørk
© Morten Krogvold | Virgin Classics

Over a century later, here were the very Czech orchestra and the composer – or rather, his embodiment in the form of his music. With them, Truls Mørk, who also has his fair share of Dvořák anecdotes under his belt. It was his cello concerto that he chose to play in his acclaimed stage return at the Oslo Konserthuset in 2011 after a rare form of encephalitis left him unable to play for two years.

With so many universes concurring in space and time, it all seemed rather promising, especially when orchestra and cellist were in the veteran hands of Jiří Bělohlávek. The generous orchestra introduction was met with poise and brilliance by the orchestra, which warmed up the atmosphere and let Mørk hit the ground running, almost literally – he began with impetus, digging deep with his bow into his magnificent Domenico Montagnana cello. In an era where brilliance so often takes precedence, it is a treat to get to listen to an instrument that can at times remain fairly discreet in volume yet never fails to tap into an astonishing array of colours, all courtesy of an extraordinary musician. Mørk has said that he feels he sings to the audience through his cello. Conversely, his cello breathes through him, very audibly so. This is clearly a happy marriage, one that works even better at its most inaudible, producing unthinkable sounds that barely exist yet are so present – the harmonics at the end of the second movement being an obvious case in point. It is in the juicy long phrases Dvořák conceived so well that Mørk mould into endless shapes of intense dynamics, leaving a sense of nourishment. This cello concerto is no walk in the park, and getting through the octaves, double stops and cadenza-like sections is in itself quite an ordeal. Mørk’s foundations were his solid technique and the springboard he found in an orchestra that Bělohlávek led with much clarity and little ostentation.

“Don't practise too much. If you do, you will become a musician,” Mørk’s reluctant father – a cellist himself – used to tell the young aspirant. Thank goodness for rebellion against authority.

The second half opened with Antón García Abril’s Celibidachiana, a symphonic score commissioned by the National Spanish Orchestra in the early eighties through which the composer sought to honour the great Romanian conductor, “his friend and mentor”. Bělohlávek, also an acolyte of Celibidache in his youth, gave the orchestra free rein to explore this score and boast about its ability to suggest a thousand different atmospheres. They certainly pleased the composer, who came on stage without hesitation to take a bow.

There was still one more chance to hear the orchestra at its finest, in the form of Strauss’s Rosenkavalier Suite, an orchestral arrangement that inevitably followed the gigantic success his opera had – not one Strauss would have done out of his own will though. From moving to mischievous, Bělohlávek achieved a remarkable balance sitting nicely somewhere between determination and versatility, letting the evocative if anachronistic waltzes shine through and the conjuring the golden Vienna. It also cast a light on some of the musicians as they delivered extraordinary solos – concertmaster Josef Špaček is not even 30 and already displays manners of a seasoned interpreter, exuding calm and good judgement in his limpid playing. So many of his colleagues had already excelled in the Dvořák concerto that they would almost merit a review of their own. With musicians like this, and in the hands of Bělohlávek, there is nothing to fear and there is much joy to be had.