Violin+Orchestra, Part 2

Written by Lawrence Schenbeck

So many concertos, so little time.

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

Alas. I was besieged by bouts of remorse every time I remembered another Great Concerto I was leaving out of my non-survey. No Barber. No Bernstein. No Stravinsky. Nothing Anne-Sophie Mutter had wrung out of Lutosławski. My list of shamefully neglected masterworks grew longer and longer. The last straw arrived when I saw Mark Lehman’s review of British Violin Concertos (Naxos 8.57391; see below) in TAS. Then I stumbled upon a website devoted to BVC’s, with none of the Naxos contributors (Patterson, Leighton, Jacob) even mentioned. Elgar was there, but not Britten or Vaughan Williams! Or Thomas Adès, for peat’s sake (actually not a heartbreaking omission). Somehow this cured me.

So here are a few not-quite-random thoughts about recent concerto recordings. We’ll begin with lesser-known music, then move on to the completely unknown, while glancing occasionally at Part 1’s original chew toy: abstract formalism vs. narrative or programmatic themes. You don’t need me to tell you 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):

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Gorgeous, right? Plenty of rhythmic vitality, plus color: delicate, quicksilver swarmings from various instruments. Then that breathtaking lyrical 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 poetry. All this helped him break with German Romanticism and led to a period of enormous creativity, resulting in the Violin Concerto No. 1, Symphony No. 3 (inspired by Jalāl ad-Dīn ar-Rūmī) plus many songs and chamber works. In short, he became Szymanowski!

Here’s another taste:

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You’ll be reminded of Debussy, Scriabin, and Richard Strauss, plus some refined Orientalism. Quite a heady mixture. Formally, this is a continuous, freely ordered fantasy, although you can break it down into rondo form. So: 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:

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We have been listening to a new recording of the two concertos plus a third by Mieczysław Karłowicz (1876–1090)—a perfect aggregation, I think—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.)

Indeed, 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.

You should listen to it too. There’s a SoundCloud track at the bottom of that Gramophone piece with the whole Fantasia on it. Very nice recording, incidentally, done at London’s Air Studios, and exceptionally good liner notes by Jim Svejda.

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 typical Hitchcock soundscape:


If you listen patiently 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. In the latter, you’ll recognize the music of that concerto’s third movement:

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Right out of the Berg concerto. Really quite evocative in this new context, though. I liked it, just not as much as Wallin’s piece.

As I mentioned, Mark Lehman likes a new Naxos recording of 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:

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But let’s move quickly on, to end 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). It’s a collection 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 a Chandos website. Try Doolittle’s short, lovely falling still, its narrative focused on rain and birdsong, if you’re on the fence about other selections.

Next: 2018’s Greatest Hits so far.

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