June 25, 2009

(++++) LESS-KNOWN WORKS THROUGH THE CENTURIES

Bruch: Violin Concertos Nos. 2 and 3. Maxim Fedotov, violin; Russian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Dmitry Yablonsky. Naxos. $8.99.

Franz Xaver Richter: Grandes Symphonies, Nos. 7-12 (Set 2). Helsinki Baroque Orchestra conducted by Aapo Häkkinen. Naxos. $8.99.

Henry VIII, King of England (and other composers): Motets from a Royal Choirbook. Alamire consort singers; QuintEssential sackbut and cornet ensemble; Andrew Lawrence-King, gothic harp; David Skinner, director. Obsidian. $18.99.

     Many concertgoers are not even aware that Max Bruch wrote more than one violin concerto, so popular is the first of his three, in G minor. But Bruch did write three violin concertos, the second and third both in D minor, and although neither of the later works has the verve and combination of beauty and tight structure of No. 1 – which was Bruch’s first major work – both the later concertos are quite worthy of occasional performance. And both are undeniably by Bruch, containing his signature sweet themes and rhapsodic handling of traditional forms. The first concerto was dedicated to Joseph Joachim, who in 1867 helped Bruch shape it into the form in which we know it today. The second, which dates to 1878, is dedicated to another great violinist of Bruch’s time, Pablo de Sarasate, and has many of the same expansive elements as No. 1, although its extended finale does seem to go on rather longer than its thematic interest allows. The third concerto dates to 1891 and is the longest of the three, featuring an opening movement that is practically Tchaikovskian in scale and a concluding rondo in the form of a perpetuum mobile. Maxim Fedotov makes a good case for both these works, playing them with sensitivity and, in No. 3, with a sense of grandly heroic scale. And Dmitry Yablonsky and the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra provide fine accompaniment. It is hard to be more than lukewarm about the concertos themselves – this is one case in which less-known works actually deserve to be less known – but it is even harder to justify their nearly complete exclusion from concert programs. Both have lovely elements and ample virtuosic opportunities, and if they do not seem quite as creative as the G minor concerto, that simply means that Bruch set such a high standard for himself that even he could not surpass it.

     Pretty much all the music of Franz Xaver Richter is little known nowadays, but he was a fine composer and, in his day, a well respected one as a member of the Mannheim court orchestra. Yet Richter did not wholeheartedly adopt the techniques of the Mannheim school, believing that some of them glorified form over substance – for example, the famous “Mannheim Rocket,” rapidly ascending broken chords starting in the lowest bass range and ascending to the ensemble’s very top notes. Instead, Richter sought to balance elements of Baroque style with some that were considered quite modern in the mid-18th century. Thus, his 12 Grandes Symphonies of 1744 – actually written before he joined the court at Mannheim – show considerable contrapuntal skill while also bringing more emotion to their slow movements and greater intensity to their outer ones than would have been the norm in compositions only a few years earlier. This is not to say that these are profound symphonies – they are in fact closer to the sinfonia style than to anything Haydnesque – but they are well structured and show some compositional creativity. Among the six works of Set 2 – two in C major, one in A major, one in B-flat major, one in E minor and one in G minor – are two symphonies in four movements and four in three. But one of the three-movement works (the G minor) has a finale that lasts less than a minute and is over practically before a listener gets used to it. Both the four-movement works end with minuets (which of course were generally placed in the middle, usually in third position, by Haydn), and the E minor symphony has an interesting fugue as its second movement. The pleasures of these works are in their details rather than their overall scope; the pleasures of listening to them on this new Naxos CD have a great deal to do with the verve with which the Helsinki Baroque Orchestra plays them on period instruments. Aapo H√§kkinen paces the symphonies well, with suitable contrast among the movements, resulting in a disc that is worth hearing repeatedly by a composer who is not heard very much at all.

     And speaking of original instruments: a CD called Henry’s Music features some that are so authentic-sounding that the music itself seems almost to come from a different world. King Henry VIII was intelligent, cultured and musically skilled – modern views of him merely as a tyrant with six wives (and founder of the Church of England) are, to put it politely, seriously skewed. The highlights of Obsidian’s new CD are nine works written by Henry himself, plus six previously unrecorded motets taken from a famous and beautiful Royal Choirbook owned by the British Museum. Henry’s works express typical courtly sentiments of the 16th century with grace and delicacy, while the six Royal Choirbook motets present Latin texts that are beautifully harmonized and elegant. Nor are Henry’s works and those from the choirbook the only pieces here: there are 21 works in all, including ones by Robert Fayrfax, John Taverner and Philippe Verdelot – famous names in their day if not in ours. The mixture of Latin, French and English verses, the wide variety of the works’ lengths (from less than a minute to more than 16), the wonderful accompaniments on some unfamiliar instruments, and the overall harmonic beauty of these pieces, add up to a highly unusual listening experience and a fine tribute to a monarch whose court was perhaps the most musical of its time.

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