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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Cello Concerto in B minor Op 104 (1895) [40:28]
Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Cello Concerto No 1, H196 (1955) [25:55]
Victor Julien-Laferrière (cello)
Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège/Gergely Madaras
rec. Salle Philharmonique de Liège, Belgium, September 2020. DDD.
Reviewed as downloaded from press preview.
ALPHA 731 [66:37]

I find that performances of the Dvořák cello concerto fall into one of two traditions – the Casals way (Warner 7777634985, mid-price download, with Elgar) or the Fournier way (Presto DG CD 4238812, with Elgar, or Beulah 1PS66, with Schumann: Recommended – Spring 2020/3). The former is brisk, passionate and dramatic, the latter broad, lyrical and patrician. This fine new account by Victor Julien-Laferrière I place very firmly in the Fournier tradition which is fine with me since, if push came to shove, I would probably plump for the Frenchman over the Spaniard, much though I love the Casals recording.

Julien-Laferrière is his own man. He knows what he wants to say in this wonderful music. This is an even more leisurely account than Fournier’s and he takes an astonishing two minutes longer than Casals’ timing in the first movement. That this is a performance focused on the magical, nostalgic epilogue at the end of the finale is announced as early as the second minute when the pulse for the great horn solo practically slows to a halt. Some will object to this but I thought it was wonderful. There is not a hint of self-indulgence about this, nor the many similar passages throughout the concerto.

The more I have listened to this recording, the more beguiled I have become by Julien-Laferrière’s gentle poetic way with the solo part. His first entry lacks the drama and showmanship of a Casals or a Rostropovich but it sets the tone. He doesn’t over egg the melancholy which I feel makes it all the more affecting. He never forces his tone to generate excitement.

The Lille band, well though they play, can never touch the BPO under Szell for Fournier but they seem fully signed up to the soloist’s view of the work. Their relative lack of plushness sometimes throws up fresh insights into this much recorded piece. Round about the ten-minute mark in the first movement, the duet between the soloist and the flute had me thinking of Dvořák’s (nominal) compatriot, Mahler, in particular the great flute solo in the finale of the Tenth symphony. This wasn’t the only time links between Dvořák and Mahler came to mind.

The sound is a fine example of what I think of as the Alpha house style – clear in the way a still pond is clear rather than forensic or sterile. Certainly the relatively natural ambience suits the soloist’s approach. I don’t want the reader to get the impression that that view is in any way understated. Julien-Laferrière plays with considerable charisma and he is extremely persuasive.

Pierre Fournier provides a link to the other work on this disc – Martinů’s first cello concerto. Begun in 1933, this work went through two further revisions before reaching its final form in 1955. Its last two incarnations were premiered by the great French cellist, who recorded it live with Sawallisch and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in 1978. It is a somewhat neoclassical work, reflecting the composer’s interest in the concerto grosso form. This results in a solo part much more integrated into the orchestral texture than more showy concertos. Particularly in the slow movement, it does have greater depths than its bright, cheery opening might suggest.

Comparing that opening on this recording with Sol Gabetta’s 2016 live account with the Berlin Philharmonic under Krzysztof Urbanski in 2016 (88985350792, with Elgar - review), Julien-Laferrière and Madaras seem to lack something in terms of bounce with the characteristic Martinů ‘sprung rhythms’. As with the Dvořák, Julien-Laferrière sets out his stall early, demonstrating that it is the darker elements of the work that he has his sights set on. I think he is right to do so since there is a danger, otherwise, that the concerto descends into pastiche. Even the relative spareness of the orchestral sound, certainly next to the opulence of the Berlin Philharmonic, seems to suit this view. Julien-Laferrière again and again finds a keening quality to the cello writing which is very affecting. The slow movement is particularly successful in this regard. He is also adept at avoiding a sense of buzzing busy-ness than sometimes overtakes Gabetta’s otherwise very fine account.

On balance, an ideal account of this concerto would combine Gabetta’s extrovert approach with Julien-Laferrière’s introspection. Of the alternative versions I have heard, the closest to that ideal, unsurprisingly, is Fournier currently available on a 1997 Cascavelle release (VEL2009, download only). Fournier’s slow movement is quite wonderful but Julien-Laferrière runs him pretty close and his sparer, bleaker view of the music brings out other qualities in the music.

The longer I have spent with this recording, the more my admiration for it has grown. I now consider the Dvořák my preferred modern version. Other accounts more obviously grab the attention of the listener but Julien-Laferrière’s quietly charismatic way with this music penetrates deeper still into the nostalgic heart of this glorious concerto. The Martinů can hold its head up well against its rivals but the Dvořák is the star.

David McDade



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