Victor Herbert (1859-1924) was born in Dublin, raised in London, musically trained in Germany (after he’d given up the idea of being a medical doctor) and found success in America – as conductor, cellist and composer. He is probably best-remembered for his operettas, especially Babes in Toyland (1903), filmed at least twice, first by Laurel and Hardy in 1934, then by Walt Disney, albeit loosely.
Of Herbert’s two Cello Concertos, the D-major example (1884) opens speculatively, the soloist abruptly entering just as the orchestra is on the verge of developing a big statement. The music is elegant and sweetly lyrical, the cellist dominating, the ensemble (including a harp) supporting subtly. Of course, the cello being Herbert’s own instrument, his writing for it is idiomatic if not without technical challenges, which Mark Kosower tackles with aplomb and sterling musicianship. This isn’t great music, but it is pleasant and unpretentious, and one might term the middle movement (an Andante enclosing an airy Scherzo) as being moonlit. At the heart of Herbert’s music is melody, and the polonaise rhythms of the Finale are engaging.
The E-minor Concerto (1894) begins in dramatic style, cello as forlorn operatic character, before taking more decisive steps; it’s clear that Herbert was a man of the theatre, but he had a penchant for ‘light’ music, too. The work plays continuously through its three movements, and there is no cadenza. It’s a rather fine piece, fuelled by emotion and tempered by good taste, the slow movement especially lovely, from the heart, and the Finale is strongly unified with what has gone before. Dvořák heard the premiere, in New York, with Herbert as the soloist, and was impressed enough to then write his own Cello Concerto.
Composed between the two Concertos, Herbert’s Irish Rhapsody, described as being for Grand Orchestra, does what you’d expect in his compiling a galaxy of popular and folk songs into a 16-minute sequence that is colourfully scored, the tunes being soulful and foot-tapping to form a very likeable confection: or is it the blarney I am giving you!
Under JoAnn Falletta the performances are excellent and warmly communicative, and although fortissimos can be rather too ambient in this acoustic, the recorded balance is good. It seems that Victor Herbert was a man of rude good health until, aged 65, he was suddenly taken by a heart attack. He is recalled agreeably here.