Violin Plus Orchestra, Part Two

Violin Plus Orchestra, Part Two

Written by Lawrence Schenbeck

So many concertos, so little time.

When I decided to devote two whole TMT columns to Violin Concertos After Beethoven, my aim seemed clear: sort through a pile of recent recordings, find the best and/or most provocative, and report on them. I would not, could not attempt a comprehensive survey, but I might at least explore ways in which violin concertos have evolved, deconstructed, or simply left the building over the last hundred years.

And yet I was besieged with bouts of remorse every time I remembered another Great Concerto I was leaving out of my non-survey. No Barber. No Bernstein. No Stravinsky. And nothing Anne-Sophie Mutter had wrung out of Witold Lutosławski. My list of shamefully neglected masterworks grew longer and longer. The last straw came when I saw Mark Lehman’s review of British Violin Concertos (Naxos 8.57391) in TAS. Then I stumbled upon a website devoted to same, with none of the Naxos contributors (Patterson, Leighton, Jacob) even mentioned. There was Elgar, but not Britten or Vaughan Williams. Or Thomas Adès, for peat’s sake (actually not a heartbreaking omission). This helped me get over myself.

So, what follows are a few not-quite-random thoughts, not-quite-randomly updated from 2018, when these remarks first appeared in Copper. We’ll begin with lesser-known music, then move on to the completely unknown, glancing occasionally at Part 1’s original chew toy: abstract formalism vs. narrative or programmatic themes. I needn’t say much about Mendelssohn, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, or Bruch. But we will start with recognizable music.

For instance: lately I’ve been struck by just how ubiquitous the music of Polish composer Karol Szymanowski (1882–1937) has become. He wrote in a lush late-Romantic style that nearly everyone enjoys. And he gave us not one but two violin concertos. Listen to the opening of Concerto No. 1 (1916):


Gorgeous, right? Plenty of rhythmic vitality, plus color: delicate, quicksilver swarmings from various instruments. Then, a lyrical yet breathtaking entrance by the soloist. Szymanowski seems to have been inspired partly by his friend Tadeusz Miciński’s poem “May Night”:

 Donkeys in crowns settle on the grass –
Fireflies kiss the wild rose –
While death flickers over the pond
And plays its wanton song.

Brings to mind A Midsummer Night’s Dream, except for the bit about death (Divinely Decadent, that). We should bear in mind that this was composed during the upheavals of World War I, which found Szymanowski relatively isolated. But he had already had transformative experiences: sexual awakenings in the Mediterranean and North Africa, performances heard elsewhere of Pelléas et Mélisande, The Firebird, and Petrushka. He met Stravinsky in London and initiated a friendly correspondence. Later, he read extensively: Greek tragedy; histories of Islam, ancient Rome, and early Christendom; Plato, Da Vinci, Persian poets. All this helped him break with German Romanticism, which led to a period of enormous creativity, which led to Violin Concerto No. 1, Symphony No. 3 (inspired by Jalāl ad-Dīn ar-Rūmī) and many songs and chamber works. In short, he became Szymanowski.

Here’s another taste:


Perhaps you’ll be reminded of Debussy, Scriabin, and Richard Strauss, plus a dash of Orientalism. Quite a mix! Although you can break it down into rondo form, this music comes off more as a continuous, freely ordered fantasy. Narrative, definitely narrative.

Szymanowski’s second violin concerto was the last major work he completed. Its one-movement structure is not unlike that of No. 1, but the folk influence of the Tatra Mountains—where Szymanowski had a villa—is obvious:


We have been listening to a new recording of the two concertos plus another, by Mieczysław Karłowicz (1876–1909) from Tasmin Little and the BBC SO conducted by Edward Gardner (Chandos CHSA 5185). Fine performances, sterling hi-res sound. Highly recommended. (Gardner has also recorded the Szymanowski symphonies in hi-res for Chandos.)

Szymanowski is big these days, so I wasn’t surprised to find another new recording of Concerto No. 1 in my review pile. It’s a very good one too, from Anne Akiko Meyers and the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Kristjan Järvi (Avie AV2385). As good as her Szymanowski is, though, the real treasure here is a Fantasia by great Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, which Meyers commissioned in 2014. She wrote about her experience at length for Gramophone, so I’ll quote from that:

In December [2014], I flew to Helsinki to meet Rautavaara and perform the work for him. . . . [His] apartment was flooded with a special light that only seems to exist at the edge of the earth, overlooking the sea. . . . After I played Fantasia, he looked at me and repeatedly said, “I wrote such beautiful music!” We all laughed and agreed. . . . I was amazed that he made no changes to any notes or dynamics. Everything was in place just the way he wrote it. Fantasia is transcendent and has the feeling of an elegy with a very personal reflective mood. . . . I thank him from the bottom of my heart for writing a masterpiece that makes me cry every time I listen to it.

Why not try it yourself? There’s a SoundCloud track at the bottom of her Gramophone piece with the whole Fantasia on it. Very nice recording, incidentally, done at London’s Air Studios, with exceptionally good liner notes by Jim Svejda. (A YouTube follow-the-score version is also available.)

 Time for more challenging terrain. This next concerto is called Under City Skin, for violin, strings, and “surround sound” (more precisely, a mixture of musique concrète and synthesized materials). You may have trouble figuring out which is which. Was that a bird, or violin harmonics? A Mercedes-Benz revving up, or a tone generator? We begin by following a pair of high heels through a Hitchcock soundscape:


If you listen with few expectations, it grows on you; the surround sound helps. This ambitious, interesting work by Rolf Wallin is featured on an SACD from BIS (2242) along with Eivind Buene’s Miniatures and Violin Concerto. You’ll recognize the music of that concerto’s third movement:


Right out of the Berg concerto! Really quite evocative in this new, post-modern context. I liked it, although not as much as Wallin’s piece.

As I mentioned above, Mark Lehman likes Naxos’s British Violin Concertos. So do I. Violinist Clare Howick pulls together three relatively conservative works by Paul Patterson (b.1947), Kenneth Leighton (1929–1988), and Gordon Jacob (1895–1984). Tuneful, lively, and sturdy, all of them. Here’s a bit of the Patterson:


But let’s end this segment with some kale-laced quinoa: 21st Century Violin Concertos from Harriet Mackenzie and the ESO conducted by Kenneth Woods (Nimbus Alliance NI6295). Includes music by Patterson (Allusions for two solo violins and strings), Deborah Pritchard (b. 1977), David Matthews (b. 1943), Robert Fokkens (b. 1975), and Emily Doolittle (b. 1972). The album’s unified only by Mackenzie’s involvement with these composers, so you may find it uneven. I liked Pritchard’s Wall of Water (2014), inspired by paintings of Maggie Hambling. There’s a promotional video on YouTube, but it doesn’t give you a very good idea of how the music unfolds. Check out Mackenzie’s complete performance with the Aldeburgh Festival Orchestra:


You can purchase only the tracks you wish here, on the Chandos website. On the fence? Try Doolittle’s short, lovely falling still, its narrative focused on rain and birdsong.

Since 2018, a number of excellent violin-and-orchestra albums have come out. I’m especially fond of two: the first is Paris from Hilary Hahn, featuring works by Chausson and Prokofiev plus more Rautavaara in the form of two short Serenades. They are beautiful, and quite likely the very last music he composed. 


Second comes a new recording of Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto, using Ancient Instruments (i.e., from the early 20th century) as employed by the not-at-all-ancient violinist Isabelle Faust with conductor François-Xavier Roth. Bracing, energetic, characterful performances. This is now my favorite recording, bumping that by Patricia Kopatchinskaja—who does have enormous fun with this work—out of first place. Watch Faust and Roth tear into the finale of the Stravinsky:


Did you check out the bassoonist in that video? He’s certainly having fun.

The album’s cover art: Nature morte au violon et feuille de musique (1914) by Juan Gris, roughly contemporaneous with Stravinsky and his own brand of musical Cubism. Well done, everyone!


This article was first published in Issue 56.

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