Review: The Dvořák Album – Jan Vogler, Cello (2022)

Cellist Jan Vogler’s new album, a collaborative project from the Moritzburg Festival, features chamber music of Antonin Dvořák. He enlists the talents of several younger colleagues who have promising careers in their own right. The centerpiece selections are the Op. 87 Piano Quartet and Op. 90 “Dumky” Trio with three shorter works interspersed.

In the Allegro con Fuoco of the E-flat Major Quartet (track 2), the strings’ emphatic bowing and the piano’s rolling arpeggios deliver palpable energy and conviction. However, when one considers the version by the Emerson String Quartet & Menahem Pressler (DG), the current performance feels quite rough around the edges. One thing is the very brisk tempo which verges on feeling rushed. The other is the way phrases and accents are handled, which come full force too often. What should be a tender Lento (track 3) suffers from a similar issue: Vogler is clearly going for an expansive, expressive vocal quality, but the tone comes on too strong; much more sensitivity and nuance is needed. The Finale fares a bit better with appropriate lightness and clarity in some of the staccato passages. 

The Dumky Trio, for me, is far more successful: the Lento Maestoso (track 7) offers fine performances from Vogler, Chad Hoopes (violin), and Tiffany Poon (piano). The ensemble is well-integrated, as we hear in the canonic conversation between violin and cello starting at 0’30”: good calibration between the two lines gives way to the beautiful harmonies that arise in the dialogue. In the E major section (1’34”), all three parts are faultlessly synchronized down to the last sixteenth note. But it’s not just about coordination: what I liked especially was how each performer’s expressive voice still appears. Vogler’s resonant tone adds depth; Hoopes imbues beauty and sensitivity into his lines, as we hear in the violin entrance; Poon adds delightfully scintillating textures (2’30”) but also dramatic power to the climactic points. 

The Poco Adagio which follows is another solid offering with the ensemble reacting sensitively to Dvořák’s tonal shifts: we can really hear the uplift in the major key areas, while the C# minor takes on a much more subdued hue. Clarity abounds in the Andante Moderato (track 10). Here, the performers achieve balance of textures; they bring out the horizontal lyricism of each line yet maintain the vertical rhythm, which reminds us of plodding footsteps. The final Lento Maestoso has a kaleidoscope of characters that come and go, and the performers do a very successful job in making those transitions seamlessly. They uphold a consistent musical integrity while preventing the smaller episodes from sounding scattered. At the same time, though, the capricious nature of the movement is not lost.

The album concludes with a performance of the composer’s well-known G-flat major Humoresque (Op. 101) by Poon. Her interpretation aptly mirrors the “something nostalgic, something melancholic” she mentions in her notes – an interesting take given that the dotted note figurations would otherwise speak to a more joyful character. 

The liner notes are not all that long but are set up interestingly: Vogler’s foreword is followed by musical descriptions–each work’s is authored by a different performer, which gives us a refreshing variety of insights. The sound engineering could be better; it’s uneven across different works with the quartet especially problematic. Too much weight is given to the strings and the piano sounds far away and oddly plunky in the upper register. Across several works, the cello also has an overly brassy tinge.

The choice of pieces here gives us a nice array of Dvořák chamber repertoire, though I would have loved to have more shorter works included. With some perceptible hits and misses, certain selections like the Dumky are well-worth the listen. For others, however, other versions remain preferred choices.

Full disclosure: Tiffany Poon’s non-profit charity, Together with Classical, is advertised on this website, for no advertising fees.

The Dvořák Album
Jan Vogler – Cello
Chad Hoopes – Violin
Kevin Zhu – Violin
Matthew Lipman – Viola
Juho Pohjonen – Piano
Tiffany Poon – Piano
Sony Classical, CD G010004761697N

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