Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Concerto confrontation: Zuill Bailey vs. David Finckel: The Dvorak cello concerto

One of the hallmarks of a masterpiece is a range of valid interpretation by superior musicians. After considering the companion piece on a new disc, I want to offer some head-to-head comparisons of a couple of recordings of Antonin Dvorak's Cello Concerto in B minor.

ArtistLed is a venture of cellist David Finckel and his wife, pianist Wu Han, designed to focus on musician-approved recordings in an era when so many aspects of classical recordings are diffuse or ill-conceived. Marketing, repertoire choice, engineering — the whole package has frequently had what might be called the ungainly camel result: a horse designed by a committee, as the old joke goes.

An enhanced reissue of Finckel's recording of the Dvorak Cello Concerto and Augusta Read Thomas' "Ritual Incantations," both with the Taipei Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Felix Chiu-Sen Chen, has just been made available. Recorded in 2003, the performances are astonishingly bright and well-articulated.

David Finckel brings freshness, urgency to Dvorak concerto.
The well-established American composer Augusta Read Thomas is a creative force with a fresh lyrical language that's put to work summoning who-knows-what marvelous spirits in "Ritual Incantations." The piece draws from the soloist an urgency matched by the excellent Taiwanese orchestra. Every passage seems steeped in an untrammeled venture of exploration. Listeners will be easily engaged by this three-movement piece, but prepare to be emotionally wrung out in the course of the 14 minutes.

The feeling of urgency in Finckel's tone derives from a kind of narrow focus. Its richness is under pressure, but doesn't seem inhibited, thanks to nimble articulation and a ringing, extroverted vibrato. This, along with a balanced recording, makes his Dvorak concerto — the best, by common agreement, of the works for solo cello with orchestra — a strong contender for top consideration among the many available.

I'll choose to compare it here with just one that will be of special interest to readers of this blog: the 2012 Telarc release featuring Zuill Bailey with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jun Märkl.  As a remastered recording, the ArtistLed CD bears evidence of scrupulously engineered balances and the sort of clarity that is beyond the likelihood of a concert-hall experience.  Concert-hall naturalism is a will-o'-the-wisp, of course, but seems a little bit more the goal of  Telarc's Bailey/ISO.

Zuill Bailey's version is full-throttle Romantic.
Telarc's engineers, and perhaps the artist and conductor as well, were after warmth with this piece. That open-hearted expressiveness seems to go naturally with Dvorak, and the sometimes recalcitrant Hilbert Circle Theatre is coaxed into responsiveness. But I'd have to say that the crispness of the TSO/Finckel recording removes the veneer of this piece for me. Some listeners might decide the almost martial profile of the orchestra's introduction in the finale is off-puttingly Mahleresque, but I found it stirring. Oh boy, here we go, I thought.

On the whole, the Taiwanese orchestra articulates in a more pronounced manner than the ISO. The abundance of brief solos interacting with the cellist matches the featured instrument in clarity and "presence." In the ISO's first-movement introduction, some of the dotted rhythms are played in the jazz manner: a triplet with the first two notes tied, creating a 2/1 proportion instead of the 3/1 that's notated. This may be deliberate — a romantic inflection — because Märkl is not a sloppy conductor.

What about the soloist? I find Finckel's sobriety of tone a moving partner for that intense vibrato. The full emotional spectrum is covered. I like Finckel's intimacy as opposed to Bailey's magisterial quality. The second theme in the first movement is much more gripping as he plays it than it is with Bailey.

Another key emotional moment for most lovers of this work is the lengthy lingering of "memorial" music near the very end — the composer's tribute to the woman it's said he wished he had married.

As the episode winds down, Bailey has a truer pianissimo, it seems to me, and the ISO matches him. It's a heart-tugging passage, dear to the heart of all who love this piece, but I find the Finckel/TSO performance less sentimental. It's easy to sink into the soft side of Dvorak and feel that you've delivered everything the music is about, because there's so much in it that's plain lovable.

Finckel and Chen resist that temptation: The memorial mood is underlaid with a tension borrowed from the movement's predominant, martial vigor. When the cello finally swells — Finckel's crescendo is superior here — the orchestra re-enters full force in the ArtistLed recording and sweeps through an almost frenetic "Allegro vivo" to the final double bar. Some listeners may find this ending brusque and glaring, but it thrilled me no end.

Keep that ISO/Bailey Dvorak in your collection, but make room for the TSO/Finckel version!