By Stephanie Powell
“I realized that the time had come that I wanted to do the main cello repertoire,” Johannes Moser says over the phone from LA, where he was preparing to perform in Tan Dun’s Martial Arts Trilogy program at the Hollywood Bowl the following day.
Beyond his multi-media performance at the Bowl, which included scores from Dun’s academy-award winning Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and box-office hit Hero, over the next two years Moser will record five CDs with Pentatone that span the main cello repertoire. In his first release, titled Dvořák and Lalo Cello Concertos, he recorded with the Prague Philharmonic and Czech conductor Jakub Hrusa, who he credits as the perfect partners to tackle such illustrious repertoire.
His album, which is available on September 11, fuses Lalo and Dvorak—two composers he feels wrote their cello concertos from greatly different places, but who also manage to share a similar strand.
“I feel that Dvorak has this incredible personal message—the pieces are contrasting in that sense,” he says. Lalo, however, is a piece that Moser feels offers a platform for virtuosos to display his or her sound without any meta-message, or associated connotations.
“Lalo is a concerto that is in a weird place because [it] is often one of the first pieces that a music student will [perform],” he says. “I feel over the years that the Lalo concerto has gotten a bad rap and that it’s important to give the Lalo concerto the place that it deserves, which is a platform for a performer.”
With his latest release, Moser’s hoping to compare and contrast the cello works by two great composers who lived nearly a world apart.
“What unifies [the concertos] is that both composers have longing for other places than where they were at the point,” he says. Lalo was known for infusing his cello concerto with Spanish influences, a country he greatly admired, while working from Paris. Dvorak, who wrote his cello concerto from New York, was longing for his home back in Czech Republic. The sentiment, which is something Moser can relate to when he left his home in Germany to work in New York for two years, is carried through both pieces with “melancholy but also with great honesty,” he adds.
“Living abroad—it’s kind of strange,” he says of the experience, “with artists that emigrate from their homes, they become even more than they were before, in a way, they become even more attached to their nationality.”
But Moser is ready for his next journey—the art of recording, which, he says, is “very different than concertizing.” Moser admits that the thought of recording repertoire with such a storied past that has been recorded by countless luminaries, and recorded well, he adds, was nerve-wracking. Though he does feel it was time to make a statement, and he was lucky to have a piece of Dvorak at his side during the process: the composer’s original score.
“[Hrusa] inspired me to look at the score in a more in depth—to prove that there is actually a lot of lightness in there,” he says of Dvorak’s Cello Concertos. “There is a lot of dance and there is a lot of forward motion. To me, the piece really meant that I was ridding myself of all of the traditions that I was grew up with. I have been trying to get more to the core of what I believe right now is in the score.”
Moser has been playing Dvorak for 18 years—repertoire he considers the main cello concerto from the Romantic era.
“My experience with the piece goes back far,” he says. “I’ve been playing this concerto for so many years and you change your views on the same piece, or at least you should. You shouldn’t get stuck with one opinion otherwise you become your own best tribute band.”