Many recordings of the beloved cello concerto by Antonin Dvorak are currently available. Some are dominated by the soloist as he endeavors to cope with the fiendishly difficult part for his instrument. In others, the conductor is prevalent, handling an orchestral accompaniment that approaches the complexity of any of the symphonies from the pen of the composer. But for virtuosic cello playing and faultlessly sympathetic orchestral accompaniment from start to finish, only one recording offers perfection. The Pierre Fournier/George Szell rendition with the Berlin Philharmonic is that performance. In the near half century since the recording sessions for this disc were taped on the three days ending June 3, 1962 at Christ's Church in Berlin, no cellist or conductor has bested this reading when it comes to integrating the highly complex solo part with the equally challenging orchestral accompaniment.
Szell opens the exposition of the traditionally structured first movement with his customary x-ray vision into the inner voices of the material, bringing forth music that is both lyrical and muscular. The solo horn passage is particularly magnificent. From the first notes of his entrance, Fournier shows he is ready to go toe to toe, pressing out the opening motif with a songful flair. Yet this is no "match of the technocrats" where the beauty and the drama of this greatest of cello concertos are sacrificed to dry exactitude. This is a performance of sheer joy; the celebratory feel of it comes across to this day. This pervasive delight extends to the second movement, which can sound maudlin in lesser hands than those of Fournier, who endows every note with a shimmering vivacity. His tone rises like the élan of a young tenor's voice on a spring morning, set to take on every challenge, full of life's anticipation, as it blends lovingly with the counterpoint in Szell's woodwinds and strings. Soloist and conductor open the third movement briskly. Szell stirs the orchestra in a manner reminiscent of his recording of Dvorak's Slavonic Dances, a fitting counterpoint to the arching, wistful tone of Fournier's cello. His playing at the sorrow-laden coda is matched only by Yo Yo Ma, in his recording with Lorin Maazel.
I have no idea of the precise origin of the elation that so clearly manifests in this recording, this magically fresh telling of material that is otherwise so familiar as to be hackneyed. Perhaps the members of the Berlin Philharmonic, free for a moment from the tyranny of von Karajan, were delighted to have as a relief even such a notorious task-master as Szell on the podium. Perhaps Fournier had heard the recording of Szell's 1938 collaboration with Casals and knew he was in the best of hands. Maybe Szell was still giddy about a successful round of golf he had played the day before. As Mozart aficionados, perhaps they were both pleased to read in that week's issue of Time Magazine that the Glyndebourne Festival, begun in 1934 as the only privately owned opera company in England, dedicated primarily to Mozart's works, was still going strong (and remains so today, happily). For whatever reason, all of the forces involved in this recording assembled for three magic days and writ large a miracle that we can still savor today.