By Laurence Vittes
There was a time, in the last years of the 19th century and the first years of the 20th, when Victor Herbert (1859–1924) was one of the best-known names in American music. He was lionized in New York society, first as a cellist, then as a conductor, and finally as the composer of popular light operas. In 1914, his opera Madeleine premièred on a double bill with Enrico Caruso singing Pagliacci. Although Herbert was Irish, something he traded on in America where there was a vast diaspora of Irish immigrants, his musical upbringing was wholly German. When he first arrived in New York, he was referred to in the press as Herr Victor Herbert, and he always spoke with a slight German accent.
When Mark Kosower is not performing as principal cello of the Cleveland Orchestra or serving on the faculty at the Cleveland Institute of Music, he is making recordings like his recently released Naxos CD of Victor Herbert’s Two Cello Concertos, with the Ulster Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. It’s his fifth for Naxos, which also include the concertos of Alberto Ginastera. Before Kosower came to Cleveland, he was solo cellist of the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra and professor of cello and chamber music at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. I spoke to Mark while he was hanging out in the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights.
Did you know both concertos before you recorded them?
I had performed the second [concerto] before—the famous one that inspired Dvorak to write his Cello Concerto Op. 104—but not the first. I did have the music to the first, and had been interested in recording both works since being a graduate student at Juilliard. However, the reality is that so often you don’t end up learning a new work unless you have the time or a specific reason to.
What turned you on to the first concerto?
After studying it I realized how charming, lively, fresh, and youthful the concerto is as it utilizes the cello’s best registers and demonstrates its virtuosic capabilities. I later found Lynn Harrell’s recording to be of great interest. The beautiful Wagnerian harmonies were also a major selling point—Wagner having certainly been in the air at that time.
He was Irish born and German raised?
Yes, he was born in Dublin, moved to Stuttgart when he was six, and later emigrated to America as a young man. He definitely has his own musical voice with great melodic gifts: Despite living most of his life in other countries he always remained Irish at heart, as JoAnn keenly observed.
What do you think caught Dvorak’s attention?
We know that he was incredibly impressed by how Herbert used a large-scale orchestra while still balancing the solo instrument. It showed Dvorak that it was possible to write a large-scale concerto for the cello. After the premiere, Dvorak embraced Herbert and said, “Splendid. Splendid.” Then he went out and wrote his Concerto in B minor. Dvorak’s use of B major sections in his concerto to depict transcendence and triumph over struggle must have been inspired by the profound slow movement of Herbert Two, which is also composed in B major.
Do the two concertos present many technical problems?
Both concertos present considerable challenges but fall into the realm of 19th-century cello playing by today’s standards, if we consider what has been written since then. At the time these works were very progressive, pushing the standards of cello playing along with works such as Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations.
Will audiences like you for introducing them to Herbert No. 2?
I am always happy to make an introduction! Both concertos are tuneful, easy to listen to, and very entertaining. Herbert was quite a musician. He grew up playing the piano, flute, and piccolo, and took up the cello at the late age of 15. His sense for orchestration is superb. Also, whether consciously perceived or not, his use of musical structure really helps the dramatic action, being through-composed like the Saint-Saens Concerto No. 1, and all of the main themes reappearing in the last movement. This creates an evolution in their meaning with the passage of time.
Is Herbert No. 2 so good that it would be played more if it were by Dvorak?
In a limited sense, in a very crowded field, it’s already in the repertoire. Yo-Yo Ma and Gautier Capuçon have recorded it, as well as Lynn Harrell. It should definitely make its way to the concert stage more often.
What was the recording process like?
We recorded one movement at a time and would rehearse first before recording. The actual recording began sooner than one might imagine, since it is generally very expensive to record with an orchestra. This means that everyone had to be prepared, alert, and ready to execute. We ended up having plenty of time, since everyone met the challenges. We would play one or two complete takes of a movement followed by repeating a section or a few spots as needed.
Did you at least play them in concert first?
I played the Second Concerto in concert with the Ulster Orchestra but this was after the sessions. It was more like a celebration of the recording just made. The Ulster audience was very enthusiastic and loved it.
Is the music available?
There are full scores and solo parts of each from Kalmus—the First is a reprint of the manuscript. International has a cello and piano edition of the Second edited by Leonard Rose. I believe the orchestra rentals were no problem for the Ulster Orchestra.
What gear did you use for the recording?
I played the Starker Nebula cello, a composite instrument of unknown origin about 200 years old. I used the traditional Jargar Forte A and D strings, a Spirocore Stark Silver G and Spirocore Stark Tungsten C, a combination I have played on for most of my life. The bow I used was a François Peccatte workshop bow made of amourette wood from around 1845.