After a long hiatus I’ve decided to take up the blog again, in part because the pandemic has me on leave from teaching and among the silver linings (such as they are) is more time to listen to music. So I’m going to give it a crack here again for my friends and everyone else out there who might find my observations and amateur criticisms interesting or even helpful. Feel free as always to offer your comments. My record samplings come from my own collection, friends, and occasionally a performance I know from CD or more recent material — but mostly classic vinyl. My first post here is fitting in a way, as in my last one a few years ago I mentioned how this recording was one of the last my mom was still able to not only recognize but air-conduct even when she’d basically lost virtually all cognitive abilities. We’re still unlocking how Alzheimer’s works, but it’s certainly been noted in lots of places that music retains a place in the mind that often survives the ravages of the disease, and it did for her, with this piece in particular.
The clear choice — it always has been for me, is Rostropovich and Karajan. Hardly controversial of course, not just because of the soloist, who remains unmatched in every respect, but because this was Berlin at the height of its power, and power is what is conveyed. This is a performance of strength and intensity, and Rostropovich’s uniquely rich and deep sound is a perfect fit. As the three fillers go, this one is the clear winner, and also a classic in its own right, probably unmatched in the catalogue, before or since. My copy is a promo, NOS, 1ED, the first couple line label, which does actually have a minimal impact of sonic richness.
Readily available on CD as part of the first issue of the DG “Originals.”
The audiophile favorite of course is Starker and Dorati. The sound lives up to its legendary status, here on a promo RFR2/3 that is pretty well close to perfect. If Berlin is sheer power, the LSO here are rhythmic and even light at times, with quicker tempi and a undeniable lilt that just wasn’t in Karajan’s vocabulary but works here, if you prefer this piece to sound more like the Slavonic Dances, fitting the composer’s style as a whole — if with a bit less gravitas in the piece for my taste. The Mercury sound does capture individual soloists as though they’re front and center, in the typical way for the classic era of these recordings. Starker himself has always struck me as a bit thin, particularly in the lower registers, but that’s only because my standard is Rostropovich’s solid baritone. The soloists and orchestra and direction are perfectly matched, for sure, with rhythm and momentum building seamlessly from start to finish. It’s a glorious performance, just different in overall impact from Slava and HvK. This is purely a matter of taste, and mine’s always been clear.
Lastly we have to consider Jackie Du Pre, who was has her own special way with the instrument. The overall sound is a bit less impactful than either the Karajan or Dorati, probably due to venue and engineering; and the orchestral accompaniment also a little lacking in personality — nothing against Barenboim, but this strikes one as a performance in the service of the soloist, not a complete work. Tempi are also more erratic at times and can come off as less balanced. Du Pre is a wizard, there can be no doubt, and she is just flying around with this piece, less attentive to overall direction and melodic line that Rostropovich and Karajan (a strength for Karajan in general — he always has a great feel for a work’s gestalt). This is a recording is a showcase, less a sum of its parts than three separate happy and joyful exposes of the brilliance of the instrument in this woman’s hands. The tone, for me, is a lot closer to Slava than Starker, but still has an airiness to it that allows it to take flight at times, but still stay grounded when it needs to
The clear comparison for Du Pre is her Elgar, where the difference is all in the conducting and, much like Karajan, a far better (in this case, masterful) conception of the work as a whole. Her theatrics are in the service of the work as a whole here, and the LSO is with her step for step, both in mood and in overall carriage of the journey from start to finish, so vital with this composer even more than Dvorak — and perhaps one reason good Elgar conductors (and thus performances) are so hard to find. I don’t know if Sir John ever led her in the Dvorak — perhaps there’s a live version out there somewhere — but he certainly did enjoy the composer, and it’s a shame they never set the work down in the studio alongside this masterpiece. My copy here is the ED2, but honestly I’ve heard the first half moon issue and have never been able to tell the difference!