PRESS & REVIEWS
SCHUMANN Cello Concerto. DVOŘÁK Cello Concerto Carmine Miranda (vc); Petr Vronský, cond; Moravian PO NAVONA 6034 (61:59)
It adds an extra measure of respect, sometimes even a touch of awe, when a musician also turns out to be a writer. The late Charles Rosen set a high standard, and there’s enviably good writing from two other pianists on the present scene, Jeremy Denk and Jonathan Biss. So the accomplished Venezuelan-American cellist Carmine Miranda finds himself in good company when he published an article titled, “Decoding the Schumann Cello Concerto.” Finding hidden messages in musical scores excites the sleuthing imagination, the classic example being Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Brahms declared that he often based motifs on the scansion of a favorite line of verse, and Schumann, one of the most literary of composers, admitted that his many and varied references, often half-veiled, tended to confuse his audience.
Miranda feels that the Schumann Cello Concerto in A Minor has been misunderstood when critics look upon its discursive nature and odd musical turns as marks of the composer’s mental decline—although begun in 1850, final revisions to the score were finished in February 1854, just days before Schumann attempted suicide by jumping into the Rhine. Instead of hearing frailty or decline, Miranda employs cryptography to unravel the cipher embedded in the score. I can’t adequately summarize the 21-page article published in The Musical Times (Spring 2016) except in capsule form. The history of embedded musical messages is complex, but Fanfare readers will be familiar with Bach and Shostakovich representing their names by matching musical notes with letters. T arrive at a complete alphabet, the clef anglais, or English key, which Schumann may have known about, allows for much more complex messages.
After covering this historical ground, Miranda arrives at a code that is actually quite simple, with the first arpeggiated theme of the Cello Concerto, E-A-C, being a code for Clara’s name, and simpler still, a fixation on C alone was central to what Schumann was intending. Cryptography can sound quite dry, but in this case Miranda concludes with a moving explanation for why Schumann, who frequently refers to his beloved in his music, went even further in the Cello Concerto. “This concerto manifests his struggle to cope with anxiety, depression, fantasy, and reality, while always trying to find light at the end of the tunnel through his immense love for his wife, Clara.” In the course of arriving at this conclusion, which Miranda realizes is open to being contested—many conjectures about cryptography are involved—one point strikes me as indisputable. Schumann wanted to merge with Clara completely, down to the very notes he composed. It’s a romantic ideal on the one hand and a disturbing obsession on the other. That’s why the argument over Schumann’s mental state cannot be settled—inspiration wasn’t separate from psychological imbalance.
It’s natural, then, that Miranda’s performance of the Schumann Cello Concerto sounds like a love letter—attention is paid to moments of delicacy and tenderness. As much as I gravitate to Jacqueline du Pré’s passionate intensity with Barenboim conducting (EMI/Warner), an intimate reading also holds great appeal. In any case, Schumann’s melodies are ravishing enough to negate scholarly criticism for the vast majority of listeners. Miranda’s playing is secure in every register, and the veteran Czech conductor Petr Vronský provides sympathetic support. In the Dvořák Cello Concerto Miranda’s is the dominant voice leading the interpretation with forthright directness of expression. Cellists fall into a range with the Dvořák Concerto between the objectivity of Starker and Ma at one end and du Pré’s complete abandon at the other (with Celibidache on a live concert recording on DG nla). Miranda finds the middle ground with assurance, being especially persuasive in tender passages, and Vronský rises to the occasion with added energy and Czech flavor in the orchestral part. It’s an eloquent and successful combination.
As a side note, this young cellist symbolizes the currents of change in classical music. Besides attending the Venezuelan conservatory from which El Sistema originated, his current US career includes founding an electronic music label, composing electronic and dance music, and working as a DJ. He joins Christian Tetzlaff’s effort to break the mold of old-is-better in instrument-making—Miranda plays a 2005 cello made by Jules Azzi in New York City (it sounds very good here). All this, and he can write with style. Not yet thirty, Miranda is like the beau ideal of multi-tasking..
SCHUMANN Cello Concerto in a. DVOŘÁK Cello Concerto in b Carmine Miranda (vc); Petr Vronský, cond; Moravian PO NAVONA NV6034 (61:59)
In our above interview, Carmine Miranda himself addresses the question of why make another recording of these two warhorse concertos so exhaustively explored on disc: “There is no reason to do another recording that is going to sound the same as the ones that came before, or to imitate other people’s interpretations and playing.” With that in mind, and keenly aware of the scrupulous research and analysis Miranda has done vis-à-vis the Schumann concerto, I was intrigued to hear what new insights his approach might reveal. I should mention that my touchstone in this work against which I compare all comers is the 1960 recording by Leonard Rose with Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic.
With that performance as my benchmark, Miranda’s is nothing if not a total shock. Interpretive consensus in this score—and that includes Rose and Bernstein—has leaned heavily towards the lyrical and even lugubrious side of the music. But Miranda and Vronský are having none of that. This is a confident, striding, almost strutting Schumann, which fits with the optimism the composer felt at taking up his new post in Düsseldorf in 1850 and which coincides with his beginning work on the concerto. Miranda’s bow stabs at the accents, the sfzs, and even the crescendos, while Vronský follows suit with the orchestral accompaniment.
To someone accustomed to smoother, more laidback performances of the piece, Miranda’s reading, on first hearing, can sound choppy and overly aggressive; but I keep coming back to the realization that in 1850, the 40-year-old Schumann, for the time being at least, was of healthy body and temporarily sound mind, vigorous, and virile. Miranda’s masculine approach to the score seems calculated to take that into account; it’s a bold, courageous interpretation of a work which, more often than not, is given a softer, tenderer treatment. At the same time, though, Miranda’s reading is intensely passionate, conveying Schumann’s love for Clara that still burned undiminished after five children.
Miranda has certainly fulfilled his promise to give us a performance of Schumann’s cello concerto that’s different; and while I wouldn’t unconditionally make it my first choice, it will certainly occupy a position of distinction among a number of other versions on my shelf.
When it comes to the Dvořák concerto, it wasn’t that long ago—in 39:4, to be precise—that I reviewed a new recording by Johannes Moser on Pentatone, calling it a performance for the ages. Obviously, Moser is an extraordinarily talented cellist, but what made that recording extra special was Jakub Hrůša’s conducting of the Prague Philharmonia and the transparency of Pentatone’s multi-channel SACD, which in perfect complement to each other made for the most telling performance of the orchestral detail I’ve ever heard.
Elsewhere in this issue, in a review of Robert Fuchs symphonies on cpo, I mention an earlier recording of the same works on Thorofon, performed by the Moravian Philharmonic, an ensemble John Bauman referred to as a “third-rate provincial Czech orchestra.” Granted, that recording dates from the mid -1990s, and in the intervening 20 years, the Moravian Philharmonic, which is heard again here, this time with a different conductor, has made great strides.
For Miranda’s part in the Dvořák, as in the Schumann, he places more emphasis on the score’s rhythmic and structural elements than he does on its folksy, lyrical aspects. Yes, he’s able to relax and sing the soaring melodic lines with great beauty of tone and emotional fervor, but both Miranda and Vronský take what I would call a symphonic view of the concerto, which, in my opinion, adds even more to its stature in the canon of Dvořák’s works.
Miranda takes a fairly fast-paced, no-nonsense tempo for the first movement, which makes his virtuosity all the more electrifying. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone dispatch the octave double stops as speedily, as securely, and as perfectly in tune as he does. On a technical level alone, Miranda’s playing is jaw-dropping, but in the end, it’s the musical conception that counts for even more, and this is a performance of Dvořák’s cello concerto that’s gutsy yet grand, nervy yet noble, and above all, bigger than life.