There’s something heartwarming in stories of friends’ differences resolved. Hanuš Wihan had requested a cello concerto of Dvořák, who declined on the grounds that, although a fine orchestral instrument, the cello was not suited to the solo spotlight. The change of heart, occasioned by Victor Herbert’s Second Cello Concerto, is to all our benefits. Dvořák’s faith in the friendship faltered when he later felt it necessary to write to the publisher insisting that a cadenza written by Wihan, and rejected by the composer, was on no account to be inserted. As it turned out, Wihan was unavailable for the 1896 première of Dvořák’s Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in B minor .

Truls Mørk © Stéphane de Bourgies and Virgin Classics
Truls Mørk
© Stéphane de Bourgies and Virgin Classics

The work’s many dark hues were engagingly communicated by Norwegian cellist Truls Mørk and the RSNO, under their very impressive principal guest conductor Thomas Søndergård. The solo part is demanding in the extreme, featuring many three- and four-note chords, and several thrilling passages in sixths and octaves. Mørk was completely assured throughout. His chamber music pedigree was evident in attention to ensemble matters such as eye contact with both leader and conductor, and very attentive listening when involved in duo moments with, for example, woodwind players behind him. Woodwind feature extensively in this work; the exposition of the opening movement’s main themes is given over to clarinet and horn respectively. A horn trio features in the second movement – played here with reverential tenderness and accompanied by very sensitive pizzicato in the cellos and basses.

The central Adagio ma non troppo was beautifully played by soloist and orchestra. While the first movement (particularly its second theme) might reflect the longing experienced by Dvořák in America for his native Bohemia, the second movement has a more personal connection. While in love with Josefina Kaunitzova, later to become his sister-in-law, Dvořák penned a song whose title bears the three words that no suitor likes to hear, “Leave Me Alone”. The song is quoted in this movement, and again in the third movement, by way of tribute; Josefina was gravely ill at the time of the concerto’s composition. There are many instances of tender harmony, and one passage rich in Tristan-like chords. Søndergård was particularly impressive in such moments, allowing the music to breath so that it felt spacious and even timeless. The audience responded very warmly to this very heartfelt performance and were clearly knocked out by Mørk.

I am repeatedly impressed at live music’s ability to reveal new things in familiar works. I first heard Stravinsky’s Petrushka in the late 70s and have listened to recordings dozens, if not hundreds of times. Nevertheless, I was surprised at just how few people are involved in the opening few bars. I knew that the flute carried the thematic interest but had never really pinned down who was providing the shimmering underlay. I was really glad of this early timbral awakening as this work is a masterpiece of orchestral brilliance and this virtuosic performance certainly highlighted that.

Another delight of this live performance was to “see” Stravinsky’s rhythms at work. For example, in the “Wet-Nurses’ Dance”, which I’ve always perceived as metrically straightforward, I was intrigued to see the ambitious arco of the double basses describing a cross-rhythm I’d never spotted. Although many of the rhythms sound irregular, it’s often the case that regular groupings are the order of the day but, their periodicity being different, they only “meet up” occasionally. This notion is taken to the furthest degree in the “Waltz” between the Moor and the Ballerina. Not only are two completely different tunes and metres at play, but two very distant sound worlds; compositional and orchestral genius expertly brought to life here.

The high point of the piece, for me, is the “Dance of the Coachmen”. Whenever I hear this I can’t help feeling intensely happy, notwithstanding the fact that the ballet revolves around a puppet’s manslaughter. In this performance the dance was “rocking” and I was aware that I was about to become one of those people who sway to the detriment of their neighbours’ enjoyment. Fortunately, I was soon distracted by the Rite-like modernity of “Masqueraders” where cascading and then stabbing strings, alongside thunderous RSNO brass had me pinned to my seat.

As Søndergård acknowledged the tumultuous applause, I wondered if he would treat the event as a team performance or indicate the many individuals and sections who had helped nail the work. I was pleased that he opted for the latter, especially in the case of pianist Catherine Edwards, guest principal trumpet Huw Morgan and principal flute Katherine Bryan who, amongst many others too numerous to mention, made this an unforgettable experience.