GMCD 7235 – Cello Conceros by Dvorák & Herbert
Philharmonia Orchestra, Djong Victorin Yu – Conductor, James Kreger – Cello
Essex Chronicle 14-07-2006
Guild of good musical variety
Not for the first time, have I focused upon one of the smaller classical Labels available to collectors of CDs in this country.
Guild Records (GmbH) is based in Switzerland.
Having had a long association with their releases, I am more than happy to recommend them, both for their variety and general interest.
For example, one of the series that the company has released is The Golden Age of Light Music.
Admittedly, Guild is not the only company that has explored the treasury of 78rpms, and reissued them on CD.
There are plenty of “nostalgia” editions, but for sheer breadth, the16 volumes is to be admired.
From an introductory volume (Guild GLCD 5101), the series explores each decade, and then some of the big bands and orchestras such as Mantovani (Guild GLCD 5113).
So let me introduce two of the volumes in more detail.
British Cinema and Theatre Orchestras (Guild GLCD 5108) looks back to the times when the big city cinemas had their own pit orchestras that would play during the intermissions (previously during the “silents”).
In this album, the 19 tracks feature pit bands such as the Coventry New Hippodrome, London Hippodrome and London Palladium in some of the easy-on-the-ear numbers including a selection from Jerome Kern’s
Showboat and the very familiar Grasshoppers ‘dance.
I can remember going to a dancing class as a toddler and made to dance to this number – oh, the indignity of it all.
The Golden Age of the 1930s has two volumes linked to it.
The second-(Guild GLCD 5116) introduces some of the same orchestras and other big names of the time (now forgotten) like Edith Lorand and her Viennese Orchestra, Harry Engleman’s Quintet and Barnabas von Geczy and his orchestra.
He probably came from Peckham.
There is an experimental stereo track as a bonus recorded in 1934 with Ray Noble and his New Mayfair Orchestra.
This was the time when popular music was fitted an to the 3 minutes average side of a 78rpm.
But Guild is not just about nostalgia.
Among its latest releases is a winning combination of Dvorak’s celebrated Cello Goncerto, and another shorter work by the same composer, as well as the Cello Concerto in E minor by Victor Herbert (Guild GMCD 7235).
American Cellist, James Kreger, makes a passionate case for this wonderful music, ably partnered by the Philharmonia conducted by Djong Victorin Ya.
Croydon’s Fairfield Hall provides a warm ambience, and however many times you have heard the Dvorak Concerto, listen to that by Irish-born Victor Herbert and find something really dramatic about it.
James Kreger received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Juilliard in 1969 and 1970, and has taught at the School for 25 years. A student of Leonard Rose and Harvey Shapiro at Juilliard, Kreger also studied with Casals and Piatigorsky, and was a winner of the 1974 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.
The centenary of Dvorak’s death occurs this May 1. Kreger’s taping of cello concertos by Dvorak and Victor Herbert with the Philharmonia Orchestra was issued in 2002 by Guild. Although Dvorak’s Concerto is a repertory staple while the Herbert is rarely encountered, the two works are actually closely related. Herbert was a faculty member of the National Conservatory when Dvorak came to America to become its director. Dvorak attended the 1894 premiere of Herbert’s Second and was inspired to begin writing his own concerto in New York eight months later.
Kreger’s performances are outstanding. His burnished tone is rich and mellow, his dynamics subtly nuanced and at times daringly hushed. His bowing is seamless, his intonation irreproachable. Kreger’s rhapsodic interpretation of the Dvorak Concerto is poignant and touching, while Silent Woods has a rapt inwardness that is mesmerizing. The Philharmonia Orchestra is with him hand-in-glove, distinguished by dramatic-sounding brasses and ravishing solo woodwinds.
Kreger has also recorded an expressive reading of Strauss’s Don Quixote in 1994 for Guild (GMCD 7204) with British violist Roger Benedict. As in the Dvorak/Herbert, the Philharmonia Orchestra is led by the commanding young Korean conductor Djong Victorin Yu. It is coupled with a spectacular account of Strauss’s great tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra.
Lastly, Kreger’s effervescent performances of Mendelssohn’s complete works for cello were released on Koch Discover International (DICD 920586). His fluent pianist is Gerald Robbins. (Though deleted, this CD is available exclusively from the Juilliard Bookstore.)
INTERVIEW: FANFARE MAGAZINE (July/August 2002)
If your only exposure to classical musicians is through the major-label CDs that dominate the retail shelves, a great many highly active, well regarded but only intermittently recorded players are escaping your attention. Consider New York-based cellist James Kreger, who took a top prize at the 1974 International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow and boasts a thick file of testimonials from the likes of Zara Nelsova, Garrick Ohlsson, Eugene Drucker, Michael Tilson Thomas, James Galway, and Carlos Kleiber. Kreger has by no means lived in seclusion all these years, but his recording history has hardly reflected his concert schedule. What you can find with a little scouting includes a bracing version of Jacques Ibert’s Concertino for Cello and Wind Instruments on Music & Arts, and Felix Mendelssohn’s complete works for cello and piano (with Gerald Robbins), most recently available from Discover International and probably soon to be reissued by the Swiss-English label Guild. Those have been around for more than ten years, but recently Guild has brought out two big efforts: Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote (coupled with Also sprach Zarathustra), and Dvorák’s Cello Concerto and Silent Woods, plus Victor Herbert’s Cello Concerto in E Minor, all in collaboration with Djong Victorin Yu and the Philharmonia Orchestra.The Dvorák disc has won praise in the international press, including from Robert McColley in Fanfare 25:4. Bernard Jacobson expressed a dissenting view in the same issue, but even so wrote that “Kreger’s playing is indeed that of a fine musician, commanding a warm, vibrant tone, and generous in his response to the music’s promptings.” Even the occasional negative review can’t help revealing an underlying positive response to Kreger’s work.I spoke with Kreger by phone recently, after having read several pages he’d mailed me detailing his background and his thoughts on music. The following remarks are cobbled together from both sources.“From the first moment I ever heard any music,” he wrote, “I realized it was the door which, when opened, would reveal all: expression, emotion, meaning, infinity. It was always music that transported me. Many people say that if you are a musician, your sound is your signature. I like to think that your sound is your soul! In fact, it is always true. First, you must know what sound you want, but it is not always easy, because many people don’t even know who they are inside. Indeed, to find your sound you must find yourself. The irony is, one listens to others to find out, and this may even involve copying, or trying to copy. But as hard as you try to copy, you can never really do it, because your own self will emerge. In this world, we are all constantly taking from our experiences, our surroundings, the people and artists we are exposed to. . . . Of course, we can never really copy it. When we try, it changes according to who we are, and thus, unconsciously, we make it our own.“I listened to many 78-rpm recordings when I was young. No one played them for me. I just was curious and decided I wanted to find out what was on them. The very first classical recording I can remember hearing was Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. I was perhaps seven years old, and I was overwhelmed! I can remember how much I wanted to be inside the music, as a participant, a celebrant! I wanted to be part of it, and from that point, I eventually requested to study the cello (when the school in Nashville, Tennessee, didn’t have any saxophones, which is what I really wanted to play) and the piano. In the meantime, I listened to other recordings lying around the house: Beethoven’s Ninth with Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with Heifetz and Toscanini, and others. In another five years, I was listening to recordings of Casals, Kreisler, Caruso, Gigli, McCormack, etc. I also was fortunate enough to hear live performances by great artists, including Moiseiwitsch playing the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto.“As you can see, I’m not really talking about the steps I took to develop my sound, since I believe the sound develops as a result of one’s imagination and life experiences. Of course, it is essential that one develop technique, in order to best portray the sound and the music. And it is technique that will carry you through the years. Just look at Maggie Teyte. It was her strong vocal technique that allowed her to sing well into old age. And there were many others; Carlo Bergonzi, for example. Of course, there are people who have a great sound, but unfortunately say nothing. A true sound has meaning, not that it really means anything, because it only means itself. But a true sound opens the door to infinite worlds of emotion and meaning. Casals could hold a note, and one would be transported. So many other artists of the past had similar traits.“It is difficult to talk about sound. We can analyze its tangible qualities (i.e., mellow, rich, thin, fat, focused), but we could still miss the point, since the greatest quality of sound is its potential for magic. But the magic is not the sound per se. Rather it is what is ‘inside’ the sound, or ‘behind’ the sound. Callas did not have a beautiful sounding voice, yet what it said was beautiful, true, and pure, with the utmost of integrity and conviction. Unlike many then and now, rather than playing the role at hand, she became the role.“In terms of models, I had many: Casals, Heifetz, Feuermann, Rachmaninoff, Hoffmann, Caruso, Gigli, Tebaldi, Olivero, Toscanini, Furtwängler, Callas, and others. I must confess to holding a special place in my heart for the great pianist and artist Sviatoslav Richter. Richter’s teacher, the great Neuhaus, believed that tone was the most important thing of all, calling it ‘the substance of music’ in his essay Art of Piano Playing. Richter’s playing possessed such incandescent passion, yet it always seemed to be held in check, as if it could burst forth at any second! Along with his consummate technique, the ability to produce hundreds of colors and shades of texture and sound, there was this ever-present controlled passion: He almost always took us on a journey into the very soul and meaning of the music.”Note that Kreger lists several vocalists among his inspirations. “The cello definitely has a natural human voice quality,” he wrote. “Therefore, when one plays, the potential for every aspect of the voice is present. Even words can be portrayed on the cello. The cello can sing (almost better than any other instrument), speak, be lyrical, or be dramatic. All the colors and timbres of the human voice are possible on the cello. There is absolutely no limit to its emotional range. To me, the cello has a wonderful ability to project the cantilena line. I always think of the Italian expression filo di voce. One must never lose sight of this!“The sound is always changing,” he elaborated in conversation. “The sound in Ibert is different from the sound in Dvorák; it’s what the sound has inside it or behind it, as if we could go to the other side of the mirror or through this invisible door into another world of emotion, this world of the composer. Every great composer will have his own world that his music creates, and the goal should be to enter that world and become part of that world and still have the control over your technique. Now, it’s infinite what technique really means. It’s not just how fast you can play accurately and in time, it’s the whole gamut. Certainly every great composer will have his or her distinct world, and I think all great artists will have their own distinct sound, something defined by who they are, and that distinctive sound will be their basic signature and yet it will be malleable enough that it will change and take shape and color depending on the music at hand. I favor the artist that one has the impression is becoming the role at hand, rather than just playing the role. If you translate that to music, when the artist becomes the music at hand, the impression is of such commitment, such involvement, that the listener cannot help but be drawn in.”Surely, this sort of commitment and immersion sets limits on the number and character of works a musician should perform. “No one can be great in everything; it’s not humanly possible,” Kreger agreed. “It’s hard for me to think of composers that are very difficult for me to fit myself into, though. It might take more work with some than others. I’m not the kind of person who will just take on everything I can get my hands on, because I’m kind of a perfectionist in the sense that I don’t want to do it unless it can be really good—until I know I’m ready. I didn’t touch the Dvorák concerto until pretty late. I had colleagues who were learning it in their teens; I didn’t touch it until I was in my twenties. Many people felt they had to do the Dvorák as soon as possible. I have one student who’s twelve years old who’s doing the Dvorák. Sometimes I may revere something so much that I feel almost afraid to touch it because it’s so great. I do that with people, too. Like David Oistrakh—I found him so inspiring as an artist, and there are numerous times I could have spoken with him and told him how much I admired his playing, but I couldn’t do it because I had put him on such a pedestal. At the Tchaikovsky Competition he was a judge, and once I walked right past him and heard him talking to other judges, and I heard this voice coming from a human being; it was a little whiny or high-pitched, it didn’t fit this picture I’d put in my mind, and I couldn’t say one word to him. I’d put him above being just a human being.”One thing that didn’t seem to intimidate Kreger was going head-to-head with Yo-Yo Ma in the Dvorák/Herbert program. It turns out, though, that Kreger recorded his CD before Ma’s, but release was delayed until last year. “Some people wondered if he got the idea from us, but who knows what his thinking was,” Kreger said. “I know him, but I don’t think he knew about our CD. But coming out after his CD didn’t concern me. I strongly believe that if I’m going to do a recording, or whatever I do, it has to be me, it has to be what I have to say. It would have to be a totally different, individual approach, which today is hard to come by because you find that so many people and orchestras sound like each other. I’m old enough to have experienced the individual sound of the Philadelphia Orchestra under Ormandy, the Chicago Symphony under Solti, Cleveland under Szell, the American Symphony Orchestra under Stokowski. But the point about being exposed to the individual sounds of the different orchestras, and artists and singers, is that there was much more of that when I was in my teens and early twenties, and now it’s changed drastically. I wouldn’t be surprised if it weren’t all related to the tremendous fragmentation of our world that accompanies the popularity of the computer in our age. But I must feel strongly enough about what I have to say artistically that there is an individual message, because that’s what art is; otherwise it isn’t art anymore.”Kreger had mentioned that he believes one’s sound develops as a result of one’s imagination and life experiences. I asked if he thought his sound, or any aspect of his musicianship, is significantly different now from when he made his first splash in the 1970s. “I think probably, at least for me, the basic sound is there early, and then it matures like a fine red wine,” he said. “I can’t see it totally changing, not in my case. It could with other people. When you listen to very early recordings of Heifetz, he sounds like Kreisler, who was his idol. But around, I guess, the late teens, early 1920s, you start to detect a distinct change in the Heifetz sound, and he begins to take on the sound you associate with him. To me, I sense that the sound really changed, but maybe it was just maturing and formulating. I’m thinking, too, of faces, of an early photo of Gustav Mahler and how as time went on his face became much more angular and much more complex, as did his music. The early pictures seem more simple, more na?ve, although I don’t know that he lost a certain na?veté even when his music became so complex with so much detail and all kinds of emotion. In my case, I believe my sound changed, but I don’t know if it totally reinvented itself. I believe sound is who you are; there’s a certain element in a person’s sound that should be there at a very early age, I would think. There’s a certain core to the sound—a core in the quality of the sound; I don’t necessarily mean a core in the type of sound. In the cello the core sound is close to the bridge, but I don’t mean it that way; I mean ‘core’ referring to the essence of a human being, and usually you can sense something at a very early age, whether it’s in a singer or cellist or violinist or pianist or conductor. Maybe less with singers; sometimes they develop very slowly, and a lot of them do something totally different before they become singers.” Kreger’s philosophical rather than technical approach to performance extends to his attitudes toward teaching—something he does not do merely for some quick cash. “Teaching is the most important profession in the world, especially if we want to make the world a better place, not just in terms of music but in terms of everything,” he said. “You have to be completely dedicated to each student and that student’s development. That’s not just for the duration of a lesson or session; it’s an ongoing thing, and you’re talking about a period of years sometimes. The student has to respect the teacher, and the teacher has to love the student in the sense of caring enough about the development of the student, as if he or she were part of you or part of your family. We’re talking about involvement—a commitment—that goes across the board. Commitment applies to everything you do in life. When I listen to someone playing music, I want to listen to someone who has such commitment that they draw me into their world, or lift me up and take me into another place and time. And if you are a truly involved teacher, you have to find a way to open a door, an invisible door, for the student; once that’s opened there’s a free flow of information and understanding. It has to do with communication; it has to do with chemistry. You can say something that can be totally unrelated to what you’re talking about technically, but used in that context your words elicit just the right response and you’re able to convey what it is you’re trying to get across to that student. Because every personality is different, there is a different way to reach each different student. It’s not easy, but you feel very alive when you’re teaching; the results can be just wonderful, and you feel a real sense of contribution and accomplishment.“Sometimes it can take a long time; sometimes it can happen in a split second. I see students who don’t start to blossom until several years have passed. There’s a mystery there. I have to say that a lot of times it makes it very challenging, and it makes me try harder to try different ways to see how I might reach a student. The teacher is oftentimes learning much more in the teaching process than the student, and that is another part of why teaching is so wonderful. My teacher Harvey Shapiro has told me very often that he should pay the student, rather than the student pay him, and I can understand that, because the teacher at that stage of development or age is often much more receptive, certainly wiser, to take in all kinds of things that would be learned from a one-on-one with a student or even in a master class. I can see teaching as something that you can do into old age, and one hopes you would get wiser and better at it as you get older. And why wouldn’t you want to—just the realization that you are affecting other prospective artists with your outlook on the cello, on sound, on tone production, on so many elements of artistic expression that certainly I wouldn’t want to be lost to the past. “I was fortunate enough to study with Casals on a number of occasions. Even in his nineties he was still able to create that universe, that other world, just by putting the bow on the string and making a tone. His intonation was absolutely solid even at that age; his vibrato wasn’t as vibrant as it had been in his sixties, but the world he could create just by playing a whole note—he could transport you. You would hope that many, many people would be affected by an artist who can do that, because it’s not just about playing notes accurately in rhythm, fortepiano, crescendo; there is something inside the sound that these great artists had. It’s a message, something not necessarily in what it says, but it’s more what it accomplishes, what it elicits in the listener. You’re getting into that mystical element of musical artistry, and I don’t know how you teach something like that.”So how exactly was Kreger able to learn from his major teachers? “With Leonard Rose it was in his playing, sometimes in what he said also, but he did his best teaching by his demonstration. He would pretty much want you to play the way he did. He would put his stamp on his students. Many of his students would have a similar approach, but they would never quite get it as well as he did in terms of his use of the bow, etc. Somebody like Harvey Shapiro would combine the playing with words, and they could be words not really connected to what he was trying to accomplish, but they would be very effective. With Pablo Casals, he would play occasionally, but it would usually be slow playing, and it would be about something in the sound. He would talk a lot about variety, and I remember him using the word ‘rainbow’ very commonly. It was very important for Casals that music have feeling, that it would have emotion. I remember a student would play and he would say, ‘Very good, but just notes, not music.’ He wanted it to be music, and he would make a big thing about that. And yet obviously the playing of the instrument, the technical foundation of all those things has to be there. It’s amazing—as old as Casals was, when he would sit at the cello it was like the cello was an extension of his body, and with all the great cellists there’s a certain physical naturalness with the instrument. I had some lessons with Piatigorsky, who was very inspiring; I remember playing the Rachmaninoff sonata for him, with Garrick Ohlsson, at Piatigorsky’s house where he had his class of students there, and I was getting pretty important information about that piece almost from the horse’s mouth. I learned a lot from piano teachers, too, like Guido Agosti, the great piano pedagogue, when I listened to him teach the late Beethoven sonatas. I’m a big, big fan of the piano. I guess I have more interest in going to a piano recital or buying piano recordings than in buying cello recordings. A lot of it has to do with the repertoire; the piano has a huge repertoire and a great variety of players.”Although Kreger’s own recent recordings have emphasized standard cello repertoire, the Ibert piece he did in the early 90s serves as a hint of things to come in future CDs. “There’s a Busoni recording in the works: a version of Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue he did for cello, and other things. I also want to do an American album. Phillip Ramey wrote me a piece I’d like to record, and I’m friendly with John Corigliano, who has some cello music. There’s some music of Paul Creston that I don’t think has been recorded, and David Diamond—it may end up being more than one CD. And the Bach suites for unaccompanied cello, although I don’t know that I want to hurry into that. I tend to wait quite a while before I touch something like that because I want it to develop inside me. We’ll see.”Kreger does not take his forays into the marketplace lightly. “Nowadays, there is much frustration and uncertainty about our civilization,” he wrote. “The relevance and viability of classical music is being seriously questioned, and we can see evidence of this in the increasing lack of classical music departments in our record stores. Perhaps this is due as much to an overabundance of misdirected, generic, mechanical performances as to narrow-minded marketing. We have also experienced events of the recent past that have become indelibly emblazoned upon our consciousness. Because of this I strongly feel that music needs integrity and truthfulness more than ever before, which will definitely benefit the world.”
A Conversation with Cellist James Kreger
CRITIC AT LARGE, NEWHOUSE NEWS SERVICE – By Byron Belt – June 2002
For Immediate Release.
NEW COMPACT DISC RELEASE BY CELLIST JAMES KREGER IS A WINNER!
JAMES KREGER, mastersinger of the cello, has a glorious new GUILD compact disc recording of the music of Antonin Dvorak and Victor Herbert.
The greatest of romantic cello scores is the Opus 104 Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in B minor by Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904). Kreger’s striking new recording is preceded on the splendid new CD by one of the Czech master’s most exquisite meditative gems, “Klid,” Silent Woods.
The Dvorak pieces are coupled with the beautiful Opus 30 Second Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in E minor by the popular Irish/American cellist/composer, Victor Herbert (1859-1924).
James Kreger’s luminous performances are greatly enhanced by the rich support of London’s Philharmonia Orchestra led by Korean-born, American-trained composer/conductor Djong Victorin Yu.
The recording is technically magnificent and warm. A special pleasure may be found in the fine notes by Benjamin Folkman, printed in welcome readable size print in English, German and French.
From his early prize-winning era in the 1970s, James Kreger has always been a cellist to watch. Today, as a Juilliard School faculty member who once studied under Harvey Shapiro and the treasured Leonard Rose, Kreger is a master who stands at the very pinnacle of the world of music in an era of remarkably great cellists.
The songful, expressive quality of the Kreger sound and musicianship are heard instantly in the opening measures of the Dvorak “Silent Woods,” and they continue to shine – balanced by brilliant virtuosity – in both of the grand concerti.
Folkman is a tad condescending concerning the Herbert concerto, stating that “Herbert’s adroitness is on a far lower artistic plane than Dvorak’s mastery,” describing the work as “a period piece of undeniable charm.”
Since nothing in the cello repertory surpasses the glorious Dvorak concerto, it isn’t possible to make any dramatic claims for the Herbert, but, especially in the big, expressive lyrical and inspired performance by Kreger, Maestro Yu and the Philharmonia, the most popular American work for the cello shines with vibrant excitement.
The new GUILD recording displays the artistry of James Kreger in a handsome showcase rich in the player’s admired songful expressivity, and adds new dimensions to his list of outstanding accomplishments.
GUILD is distributed in America by Albany Music Distributors. The Albany phone is 518/436-8814. FAX: 518/436-0643. The recording may also be ordered on-line at www.sri-canada.com.
Larger record shops should have the GUILD Kreger/Dvorak-Herbert CD in stock. It is more than worth tracing down. Hours of great listening pleasure are assured.
Fono Forum June 2002
This rendition of Dvorák’s Cello Concerto and the miniature “Waldesruhe” is a praiseworthy addition to an already impressive list of identical recorded couplings. The slow basic tempos testify to an interpretive concept whose power stems from a wealth of exquisite detail that never descends to the episodic. Technically the performance cannot be faulted, although the soloist’s gestures lack flamboyance. Despite this, there is an arresting beauty in his subtle gradation of phrases and delicately executed ritardandi. Kreger’s tone is powerful and warm, with a palette of dark colors exceptionally well suited to the introverted spirit of the Dvorák pieces. It was Victor Herbert (1859–1924) who, with his Second Cello Concerto (premiered 1894), presumably prompted Dvorák to produce his Opus 104. Herbert structured this comical, energetic but stylistically inconsistent work—whose thematic substance curiously combines circus-music with an anticipation of the horror-film idiom—as had his predecessors Schumann (Op. 129), Volkmann (Op. 33) and Saint-Saëns (Op. 33), combining three movements in one. Kreger is even more perfectly attuned to this work’s special qualities than in the Dvorák. An outstanding recording technique captures the scrupulous orchestral reading with surprising clarity of detail (for example, the brasses in the slow movement of Opus 104). The CD comes with detailed booklet notes.
Gramophone April 02
a fine, well-conceived coupling
Victor Herbert’s appealing, expertly written concerto probably inspired Dvořák to write his masterpiece in the form. The two works have shared a disc before, splendidly played by Yo-Yo Ma. The new CD has a bonus: Silent Woods, originally a piano duet, then a cello and piano piece, and heard here in the beautiful orchestral arrangement that Dvořák made in 1893. The dark, velvety sonority of the opening is particularly evocative.
Another advantage is the exceptionally well-balanced, spacious orchestral sound – the grand, luminosity of the full orchestral passages in the Dvořák Concerto is most impressive. Kreger is a fine cellist; his tone clear, unforced and well projected, the singing melodies played clear and incisive. There are many magically beautiful moments, especially in the slow movements of both concertos.
Interview with Compact Disc Classics Dec/Jan 02
Compact Disc ClassicsDec./Jan. 2002 Meeting the Interpreters James Kreger, the American virtuoso, explains his musical philosophy. His recent recording devoted to the Dvorak and Herbert cello concertos, which follows by one year the CD devoted to Mendelssohn–enthusiastically reviewed in this magazine–gave us the right opportunity for a short conversation with James Kreger, soloist of great sensitivity and warmth. Maestro Kreger, could you describe for us the artistic itinerary that made possible for you to develop your characteristic, distinct sound?Since my first encounter with music, I understood that I was facing a door that, once open, would reveal all its essence: expression, emotions, hidden meanings and a feeling for infinity. I have always been carried away by music. Many people are accustomed to believe that for a musician the “sound” represents a characteristic sign, a “signature”. Instead, I firmly believe that my sound is a projection of my soul. However, I must add that this is not always true. First, one must know what type of sound one wants to achieve, which is not always easy: it’s enough to think how seldom one knows oneself. In fact, in order to identify our own sound, it is necessary to know ourselves. But, the mere act of listening to other musicians can lead to imitation of certain models. In any case, however hard we try to adhere to these models, this type of emulation is limited by the spontaneous affirmation of our own personality. Usually what we like or what attracts us are the things that we know best. To give you an example, when we hear a certain type of sound–or, more precisely, when we feel the emotion that this sound produces in us–we automatically feel compelled to reproduce it. Naturally, it is not possible to reproduce a sound with absolute precision. Every time we try it, the sound changes according to our mood and this way, however unconsciously, we create a personal sound. Even Bach took as models music of other composers, both his contemporaries and predecessors, and, transforming it, he made the music his own. When I was a child I listened to many 78 rpm records. The first recording I remember is a Beethoven 5th interpreted by the NBC Orchestra, conducted by Toscanini. I was then, I believe, seven years old and remember I was completely conquered! I remember the desire to be able to enter “inside” the music as a performer, a real “celebrant.” From that moment I decided to be part of this world and to this aim I asked to study cello and piano (since in Nashville, TN it was impossible to learn to play the saxophone, the instrument that I would have liked, more than any other!). Meanwhile I began to listen to other recordings, which we had at home, discovering Ormandy, Heifetz, Casals, Kreisler, Caruso, Gigli, McCormack… Furthermore, I had the good luck to attend concerts of great artists, like Moiseiwitsch grappling with Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto. As you can see, in answer to your question, I am not talking of the stages that allowed me to develop any particular sound, because I am firmly convinced that one’s sound originates from the fantasy and experiences that life produces. Obviously, it is necessary to dedicate oneself to technique, because it is only thanks to technique that one can last in time. To understand this, it’s enough to think of Maggie Teyte: it is only thanks to her extraordinary vocal technique that she could sing until a very old age. In addition, there are musicians who possess a sound of great beauty, which however, unfortunately, is unable to communicate anything. A true sound must possess its own meaning; it cannot be simply a reflection of itself. A true sound must throw wide open the door to the infinite universe of emotions and meanings! Casals–like many other interpreters of the past–could play just one note and the audience was already conquered. It is difficult to talk of sound. We could analyze in detail the objective qualities (sweetness, richness, opulence, etc.), but without the certainty of answering the gist of the question, since its main characteristic is its imponderable magic. Instead, it would be better to pay attention to what is “inside” and “behind” the sound. Maria Callas did not have a voice with a particularly beautiful sound but, differently from a very large number of singers of yesterday as well as today, who limit themselves to execute a role, she knew how to identify herself with the character. In the external controversy which opposes the interpreters who want to remain faithful to the text to those who want a greater freedom, on whose side are you? I am firmly convinced that we must always and in any way remain faithful to the text. However, we must always evaluate what we are concerned with. In certain cases it is necessary to alter the text to make its meaning more clear. Anyway, this happens only in extreme cases. When you study a new score, what approach do you take? How do you immerse yourself in the poetics of a composer or of a stylistic movement? When I study a new score (but this applies to any score), my main objective is to try to enter into the personal world of the composer and of his/her music, which probably is very different from that in which we live today. It could be another dimension or–as many say–the other side of the mirror. To give an example, Mendelssohn’s music has markedly human qualities. His genius, especially in his youth, can be compared to that of Mozart. Yet Mendelssohn’s music presents very lofty cues, which do not reflect the pain and miseries that affect the world in which we live. Some way, Mendelssohn always succeeds to rise above the daily realities. Dvorak’s works, on the contrary, encompass an enormous diversity of emotions, most of which have been only superficially touched (if not downrightly avoided) by Mendelssohn’s music. When I study a new score, I always try to identify with its emotional center: to this aim I rely on many elements, structure, the kind of sound, the palette of colours, the rhythmic impulse… Often one speaks of the analogy that arguably links the cello to the human voice… Undoubtedly the cello possesses qualities fully comparable to those of the human voice. Therefore, who plays the cello disposes of almost all aspects of the voice. Even words can be expressed by the cello. The cello is able to sing, to speak and to reveal a soul from time to time lyric or dramatic better than any other instrument. One can reproduce on the cello almost all the colours and tonalities of the human voice. There is virtually no limit to its emotional richness. For me, the cello has an extraordinary propensity to give body to the refrain. I always think of the Italian expression “filo di voce.” One must never forget this! What do you think of the current “coldness” that characterises many sound recordings, often made in small-size isolated rooms? When a musician uses a recording studio, he/she has many advantages and possibilities that do not exist in a live concert. However, in spite of this it is important to be very careful, because if one pays too much attention to the sound, he/she ends up being too cold. When I record I try to think of the well disposed public of listeners who will hear my interpretation. This virtual audience helps me a lot and spurs me always to give the best of myself. In a live concert an energy level is created that is absolutely fantastic! What happens is a marvellous interchange between interpreter and audience who, united, enjoy the inspiration and the ecstasy. How do you achieve this marvellous equilibrium between rigorous reading of the score and interpretative freedom? My objectives are expressing the passions and the sentiment but also a certain control. For this reason I very much admire the interpretative style of Sviatoslav Richter. At times he completely relies on his instinct, but these instances in the life of an artist must remain almost an exception. My starting point is always the score, but in no way neglecting spontaneity. Here what you called “interpretative freedom” comes to play. When it is possible, I like to imagine to “be” the music, just like a great actor immerses him/herself in his/her character. There are artists who impersonate themselves in the role they interpret, at least for the duration of the theatrical production or the composition in which they are the protagonist. It is important for me to feel and believe that these artists do not limit themselves to merely playing the cello. I want them to become all one with the instrument. When they enter the world of music, they themselves should become music! Translation by Eugenio Lari
International Record Review April 2002
Victor Herbert (1859-1924) – best known and loved for his Babes in Toyland, Naughty Marietta and other attractive operettas – was at heart a virtuoso cellist. His Cello Concerto in E minor is a worthy contribution to the Romantic repertoire for his instrument: beautifully orchestrated and boasting good ideas (if without the unforgettable melodies and sheer genius of the Dvořák). In a way, Herbert’s duality mirrors that of the renowned and beloved Fritz Kreisler whose violinistic wizardry likewise co-existed with his own Apple Blossoms.
Herbert’s Cello Concerto reccived its world première in New York at precisely the time (March 9th and l0th, 1894) that Dvořák was serving as director of Jeanette Thurber’s National Conservatory. Moreover, the great Czech composer was in the audience to hear his younger colleague’s new work (Anton Seidl led the New York Philharmonic); he was sufficiently impressed and motivated to pick up the gauntlet. The juxtaposition of Dvořák with Herbert is an inspired one.
Collectors who have been enjoying Yo-Yo Ma’s readings for several years should note that the newly released Guild disc actually pre-dates the Sony by a couple of years. The American virtuoso James Kreger – like Ma, a Leonard Rose pupil – plays as beautifully as his more famous counterpart, but presumably was left in limbo until his recording could find an outlet for public release.
Comparison with Ma is by no means to Kreger’s disadvantage. The latter, whose chamber music playing has always touched me, draws a lithe sound from his instrument, rejoicing in a long, sinewy, singing line. His bowing is creamy smooth, his intonation squarely on target, and his phrasing unfailingly lyrical and intelligent. The Allegro of the first movement of the Dvořák Cello Concerto might strike some as a trifle leisurely and laid- back, but Yu and his Philharmonia Orchestra nevertheless project a convincing pulse and create a convincing interpretative alternative to the more conventionally paced framework favoured by Ma and Masur. And so it goes with the balance of the Dvořák and the Herbert: the Ma/Masur treatments are perhaps slightly bigger, tougher and more dynamic, but both approaches are superb and musically satisfying.
The Guild recording, as luminously reproduced as the Sony, also offers a lovely account of ‘Silent woods’ as a bonus. Kreger’s and Yu’s heartfelt performance compares favourably with one of my particular favourites, the exquisite 1989 CBC account by the Canadian cellist Shauna Rolston, made with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra under Uri Mayer, when she was barely 20 years old. Rolston is a mite more closely miked and, as a result, seems a trifle more opulent and sonorous (and the Edmonton Symphony’s horn section could rival the excellent Philharmonia’s and any other world-class orchestra’s horns). Rolston’s work is coupled with Oscar Morawetz’s Memorial to Martin Luther King, Bruch’s Kol Nidrei, Fauré’s Elégie and Bliss’s Cello Concerto.
All three of these contenders are enthusiastically recommended. We are fortunate in having such splendid cellists on tap.
Compact Disc Classics December/January 2002
It would be too simplistic to explain the strongly lyrical and visceral spirit of the two Dvorak works performed on this most beautiful Guild CD with a mere mention of the composer’s “Slavic soul” and his nostalgia for his far-away homeland (the Concerto was composed in February 1895, slightly more than two months before Dvorak left New York, to which he would never return). Indeed, the ample expressive palette of these scores encompasses some of the most important poetic elements of late Romanticism, which would find their ideal fulfillment and most effective synthesis in the works of Johannes Brahms.
Although the discographic catalogue scarcely suffers any dearth of superbly authoritative alternatives in this repertory, the interpretation of James Kreger, an American cellist with a distinct personality, ranks at the very top, revealing an artist on whom we must keep a close eye. The most immediately striking characteristic of his style is his extraordinary musical feeling, a spontaneous quality that justifies daring comparison with the most illustrious soloists. Under his knowledgeable fingers, Klid’s deep longing becomes pure poetry with a subtle but profound melancholy that reflects the existential torment of the artist and the diffuse restlessness of an entire people. On the other hand, the two concertos by Dvorak and Victor Herbert reveal the magical sound of Kreger’s cello, an expression perhaps abused in too many disc reviews but that I believe faithfully reflects the musical universe of this American soloist. Soft and vigorous, round and tenuous, affirmative and mournful, Kreger’s instrument provides us with a fascinating, indeed irresistible experience, accompanied by a Philharmonia Orchestra skillfully prompted to top form by its excellent conductor, Djong Victorin Yu. After Kreger’s superb CD dedicated to Mendelssohn, this record is another extraordinary triumph. Highly recommended.
Technical comments: detailed and very up-front recording. Especially attractive is the definition of the cello’s mid-bass register, which further aids in giving full value to the soloist’s truly great performance. Giovanni Tasso Translation by Eugenio Lari
Washington Post Sunday January 12 02
A Strong Showing: Unsung Americans Get Their Due
Although the latest recording from the cellist James Kreger includes a fine, soulful performance of Dvorak’s Cello Concerto in B Minor – probably the best-known such work in the repertory – it also contains a genuine rarity, Victor Herbert’s Cello Concerto No. 2 in E Minor. Herbert is remembered mostly for his operettas (“Naughty Marietta” The Red Mill” and especially “Babes in Toyland”), but he was also a celebrated cellist, and he wrote well and idiomatically for the instrument.
The concerto is an ingratiating work, replete with good tunes and a curious lilting quality that is apparent even in its most proclamatory passages.
It is played with uncommon elegance by Kreger, while conductor Djong Victorin Yu elicits eager, earnest playing from the Philharmonia Orchestra.
The album is available on the Guild label! -a name that might have pleased Herbert, who was a fierely articulate advocate of copyright protection for composers and a founding member of his own “guild” the redoubtable American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.
Fanfare March/April 2002
The Concerto for Cello and Orchestra by Antonin Dvorak is not only the greatest concerto for its solo instrument, but one of the greatest concertos for any instrument. In the era of the compact disc, the more modest concerto by Victor Herbert makes a historically and aesthetically satisfying companion, having been composed and performed by Herbert when he and Dvorak were friends and colleagues in New York City. The Dvorak, averaging around 40 minutes in performance, offers memorable melodies, ingenious scoring, an unconventional but effective formal scheme, and an extended, heart-rending coda unlike anything else in the literature. From its opening orchestral tutti in B Minor to its final dying melody in the cello, it alternately suggests a profound tragedy or flies into rapturous songs-without-words. There is a grand solo part, yet much of the time the cello is one of several equal voices, engaged in exquisite duets with clarinet, oboe, or violin. Victor Herbert’s Concerto in E Minor, is altogether more modest. Yet, within its more limited scope–22 to 24 minutes–it has not merely charm but its own sort of perfection. Herbert was an expert cellist, composer, and conductor before achieving fame and fortune in musical theater. His concerto is not only written gracefully for the instrument, but beautifully scored for the orchestra as well. Its graceful melodies develop, evolve, and combine to provide a musical argument worthy of the greatest masters. In any sort of decent performance the piece is a joy to hear, except, of course, for those grouchy people who think any classical music with a tune you can hum is beneath their notice.
Recording this Dvorak Concerto, which has been recorded by virtually all the great cellists of the 20th century–Feuermann, Casals, Cassado, Rose, Tortelier, Fournier, Rostropovich, Du Pre, Schiff, and Ma, among others, come to mind–is quite a challenge. The veteran American cellist James Kreger meets it handsomely. His highly disciplined cello playing is uniformly rich in sound, pure in intonation, and convincing in phrasing. The Korean conductor Djong Victorin Yu leads the celebrated Philharmonia Orchestra of London in a luxurious-sounding accompaniment in perfect accord with the soloistÕs interpretation. The sound is of the rich, resonant kind, suggesting a full-sized symphony orchestra in a large hall.
There have been far fewer recordings of Victor Herbert’s Concerto, though those who play it seem to relish the experience. My first–and excellent–recording of it may still be available in a Mercury CD reissue: Georges Miquelle, with Howard Hanson and the Eastman-Rochester Symphony. But Yo-Yo Ma, Kurt Masur, and the New York Philharmonic provide the head-on competition for Kreger, Yu, and the Philharmonia, having coupled the Dvorak and Herbert Cello Concertos on a Sony CD: SK67 173. Which is better? Kreger’s Guild release adds the lovely filler, ‘Silent Woods’, and the finer notes (though Sony’s are excellent). Both have great sound, but of quite different types: The Sony is close-in, allowing those who appreciate hearing each inner voice distinctly the opportunity to do so. Guild’s sound is richer, fuller, and smoother. Guild also has the wider dynamic range: the orchestral ‘fortissimos’ are awesome. Ma and Masur are of course totally at home with the music, and play it with skill and zest. Kreger and Yu are perhaps a tad more measured–more classical if you will–in their approach, though both recordings capture the essences of the two concertos very well. Happily, I now own them both, and need not choose.