Concert for violoncello and orchestra in B Minor, opus 104

The famous VIOLONCELLO CONCERT was the last solo concert by ANTONIN DVOŘÁK, following the earliest concerts for piano and for violin. Also created in America, like his last Ninth symphony From the New World, the concert relates in many ways to the dramatic emotional world of the symphony – chiefly with the opening theme, full of pathos and cognate to the main theme of the symphony’s finale. It was written for the composer’s close friend, violoncellist Hanuš Wihan, who for a long time had been asking him to write a concert for violoncello, but Dvořák refused, since he considered the violoncello a fine orchestra instrument, but unsuitable for a solo concert. Indeed in his early years, in 1865, he had started writing a violoncello concert for his colleague Ludevit Peer from the orchestra of the Prague Opera Theatre, where the young artist played as a violist for more than ten years, but he failed to accomplish the project. In 1894, during Dvořák’s third term as conductor and director of the New York Conservatoire, there were repeated performances of the Concert for violoncello by Victor Herbert (professor at the conservatory and principal cellist of the orchestra at the premiere performance of the symphony From the New World in 1893). Hearing Herbert’s piece, Dvořák felt inspired to create his own violoncello concert and composed it between 8 November 1894 and 9 February 1895. He valued very highly this opus of his – in a letter to a close friend in the same year he wrote: „This concert considerably surpasses my previous two concertos – both the one for violin and the one for piano… this work brings me great joy and I believe I am not mistaken in my evaluation of it.” And when Brahms heard the work, he exclaimed: „How is it I never had a clue that one could write a violoncello concert in this manner! I would have written one long ago!”.

Seeing the score, Wihan suggested that a cadenza be included at the close of the third movement, but Dvořák declined since this movement was dedicated to his sister in law, Josephina Kaunicova, who had written to him in November 1894 that  she  was  seriously  ill  and a little later passed away. Before the triumphant end of the concert, the slow, melancholic episode quotes her favourite Dvořák song „Leave me alone“. Wihan performed the concert for the first time for a narrow private circle of friends in Lužany (Bohemia) in September 1895, but when Francesco Berger, Secretary of the London Philharmonic Society, wrote to Dvořák to invite him to conduct a concert of some of his works in London and he decided to include the violoncello concert, the proposed date 19 March 1896 was not convenient for Wihan and the public premiere performance was realized by British cellist Leo Stern in the Queen’s Hall in London with the London Philharmonic under the baton of Dvořák. Stern played the General Kyd violoncello from 1684, one of about 60 violoncellos made by Antonio Stradivari. Under the direction of the composer, the concert was played with Wihan as a soloist and with great success in many other cities of Europe in the following years and even to this day it remains a pinnacle in the repertoire of great cellists, a test for artistic and technical perfection on the instrument. Superb recordings of the Dvořák concert were made by lauded performers such as Pablo Casals, Pierre Fournier, Gregor Piatigorsky, Jacqueline du Pre, Mischa Maisky, Yo-Yo Ma, Mstislav Rostropovich, János Starker and many other, with some of the most renowned conductors and ensembles.

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