December 26, 2019
(++++) CONCERTOS CONSIDERED AND RECONSIDERED
François-Adrien Boieldieu: Piano Concerto; Overtures to “La Calife de Bagdad,” “Emma ou la Prisonnière,” “La Dame Blanche,” “Jean de Paris,” “Les Voitures versées,” and “Ma Tante Aurore.” Nataša Veljković, piano; Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana conducted by Howard Griffiths. CPO. $16.99.
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in D minor; Concerto for Violin, Piano and Orchestra. Solomiya Ivakhiv, violin; Antonio Pompa-Baldi, piano; Slovak National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Theodor Kuchar. Brilliant Classics. $9.99.
Johanna Senfter: Concerto for Two Violins and String Orchestra; Ten Old Dances for Two Violins. Aleksandra Maslovaric and Katarina Aleksic, violins; Budapest Symphony Orchestra. Feminae Records. $20.97.
Vaughan Williams: Concerto for Violin and String Orchestra; Ravel: Sonata for Violin and Piano; Tzigane; Kenneth Hesketh: Inscription-Transformation; Henri Dutilleux: Au gré des ondes (arr. Hesketh). Janet Sung, violin; Simon Callaghan, piano; Britten Sinfonia conducted by Jac van Steen. SOMM. $14.98.
Second Wind: Arrangements for Saxophone of Works by Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, and Koechlin; Music by Robert Muczynski, David DeBoor Canfield, John Rommereim, and Russell Peterson. Dave Camwell, saxophone. Navona. $14.99.
Concertos can sometimes provide insight even into the works of composers who were not particularly associated with the concerto form. François-Adrien Boieldieu (1775-1834) is remembered today only as an opera composer, and specifically as the composer of one opera, La Dame Blanche (1825). But he did work in other forms, including, in a single case, that of the piano concerto. Boieldieu’s piano concerto is an early work – he wrote it when he was 17, and it is his only known piece for piano and orchestra. It is a two-movement work that is overbalanced toward the first movement, an extended Allegro with some clever and unexpected handling of the thematic material. The second movement is a bit of a letdown: marked Pastorale con variazioni, it is a set of five variations on a pleasant, bucolic theme of little significance. The concerto, written the year after Mozart died, is a throwback in some ways, but in others it looks forward to the harmonic structure and thematic development that Boieldieu would include in his operas. The new CPO recording featuring pianist Nataša Veljković and the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana under Howard Griffiths provides a fine opportunity to hear the relationship between the piano concerto and other works by Boieldieu, since it includes six opera overtures – including the one to La Dame Blanche. These are considerably more tightly knit than the concerto and a better blend of the amusing and the dramatic. Interestingly, Boieldieu uses three different forms for his opera overtures. One introduces themes from the opera – this is what most modern listeners tend to think of as normal in an overture, although it was not always so. La Dame Blanche is an overture of this type. But in addition, Boieldieu writes overtures in sonata form and in variation form – and within those forms, he sometimes opens with a slow introduction and sometimes dispenses with it. These varied approaches give the overtures heard here a freshness and attractiveness that put them on the level of the overtures by Luigi Cherubini – with whom Boieldieu in fact collaborated several times. Indeed, the overture to Emma ou la Prisonnière is not by Boieldieu but by Cherubini, although Boieldieu composed half of the opera. The piano concerto here gives an idea of the road not taken in Boieldieu’s music, while the overtures offer fine examples of the direction in which the composer did develop – with considerable success.
Mendelssohn’s success in the concerto form is much clearer: his two piano concertos and E minor violin concerto are repertoire standards and quite deserving of the admiration they receive. But even though Mendelssohn was a child prodigy almost on Mozart’s level (and considered on Mozart’s level in his own time), these concertos did not simply spring into being, any more than a piano concerto such as Mozart’s No. 9, K. 271 (“Jeunehomme”) appeared without predecessors. If it is intriguing to hear Boieldieu’s piano concerto to realize the direction in which he did not develop, it is even more interesting to hear early Mendelssohn concertos for the light they shed on the direction in which he did go. A new Brilliant Classics CD featuring Solomiya Ivakhiv, Antonio Pompa-Baldi, and the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Theodor Kuchar, offers a rare and most welcome chance to explore two Mendelssohn concertos that are almost never heard in concert, and only rarely in recordings. The D minor violin concerto dates to 1822, when Mendelssohn was all of 13 – he really was a prodigy – and the concerto for violin and piano was written only a year later. Both are remarkably assured works, and in both there is already the easy melodiousness for which Mendelssohn was known. These pieces date to the same time as his String Symphonies, which show equal assurance and similar qualities of engaging tunes and well-crafted developments. The heart of the violin concerto is its central movement, which is more expressive than its Andante tempo indication might lead one to expect. And as in the later E minor concerto, Mendelssohn here has the finale begin attacca after the slow movement’s conclusion. Ivakhiv does not overstate the concerto’s importance or overplay it in any way: it is basically a concerto strongly indebted to those of Mozart, but with some Mendelssohnian characteristics, and Ivakhiv and Kuchar present it with just the right light touch. The violin-and-piano work has grander ambitions, and in it Mendelssohn somewhat overreached, based on his command of individual instruments and the orchestra at this time. The piece lasts a full 40 minutes and does not really sustain at that length. Here the first movement is the primary focus – it takes up half the work’s total length – but, again, it is the lyrical and often quite lovely second movement that is really the concerto’s heart. Yet there is a strange element to it: the highly affecting middle portion of the movement is for violin and piano alone, without accompaniment, and it almost sounds as if Mendelssohn meandered into chamber music as this section continues – until he eventually resumes the orchestral portion. Later composers were to do something similar, as Tchaikovsky did in his Piano Concerto No. 2, but in this Mendelssohn concerto there is a combination of creativity and awkwardness that is one of the few ways in which the composer’s youth seems retrospectively evident. Again, soloists and conductor approach the music with care and perform it with fine balance and without making too much – or too little – of the material. These concertos are not works of genius, but they are works of genius-in-development, and that in itself is more than enough reason to hear them.
Concertos can be a gateway not only to a well-known composer’s other or later work but also to a less-known composer’s entire oeuvre. That is the case with the Concerto for Two Violins and String Orchestra by Johanna Senfter (1879-1961). A student of Max Reger, Senfter wrote music that was less gnarly and more accessible, although she clearly absorbed some of Reger’s notions of harmony and some of his compositional techniques. The four-movement concerto is compact, lasting about 18 minutes in a performance by Aleksandra Maslovaric, Katarina Aleksic, and the Budapest Symphony Orchestra on Feminae Records. The first and shortest movement comes across as an introduction to what will come later, and quickly establishes the virtual equality of the two solo voices and the skillful manner in which Senfter interweaves them. The second movement has an attractively lyrical, almost singing quality that is immediately winning. The third has a kind of quizzical sound that is almost playful, while the fourth sounds the most like a 20th-century work rhythmically, even though it repeatedly returns to a level of warmth that many 20th-century composers (including Reger) tended to abandon. This is a very well-made concerto that lies well on the violins and uses them effectively – and that makes one wonder why Senfter’s work is not better-known. Part of the answer may lie in the other piece on this disc, Ten Old Dances for Two Violins. Arranged in two suites of five dances each, these pieces bear the names of dance forms with which Bach would have been (and was) familiar: Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Gavotte and Gigue in the first suite, then Allemande, Bourrée, Menuet, Loure, and Passepied en Rondeau in the second. But although Senfter was clearly influenced by these Baroque forms, her suites do not so much reflect them as they attempt to update them for much later ideas of harmony and rhythm. This works rather well in the two strongly accented Allemande movements, but less well elsewhere: the dissonances of the Courante and Menuet, and the latter movement’s stop-and-start character, seem not to fit either the dances’ original forms or the time period of Senfter’s composition especially well. As a whole, Ten Old Dances for Two Violins is a piece that violinists can certainly enjoy playing: like the concerto, it shows Senfter’s considerable skill in instrumental balance and relationships. But it is not a particularly engaging work to hear: it is the sort of piece that can be admired for the skill of its construction but that leaves non-performing listeners somewhat cold – as, come to think of it, does much of Max Reger’s music.
A well-played but rather ill-assorted (+++) SOMM recording features a concerto that is itself somewhat off-putting and detached: the Violin Concerto by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Like Senfter’s two-violin concerto, this Vaughan Williams work is from the 20th century (1924-25), and like Senfter’s Ten Old Dances, the Vaughan Williams concerto has neo-Baroque tendencies. But there is a certain chilliness to the Vaughan Williams, which includes bitonal elements as well as the folksong references of which he was fond. The composer originally called the work “Concerto Accademico,” and the title seems apt, even though Vaughan Williams withdrew it in 1952. It is difficult for a listener to become emotionally involved in this music, and while it is easy to respect the considerable skill that Vaughan Williams brought to bear on the composition, the concerto never becomes engaging – even when performed as well as it is by Janet Sung and the Britten Sinfonia under Jac van Steen. The concerto was dedicated to Jelly d’Arányi, great-niece of Joseph Joachim, and she was also the dedicatee of Ravel’s Tzigane, which is more effective – if more superficial – than the concerto, and is heard on this disc in Ravel’s arrangement for violin and orchestra. The other Ravel work on this disc is his strongly jazz-influenced Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano, which gets a fine and suitably jazzy performance from Sung and pianist Simon Callaghan. Offered on the CD between the opening Vaughan Williams work and the two closing ones by Ravel are first recordings of music by Kenneth Hesketh (born 1968) and by Henri Dutilleux as arranged by Hesketh, who studied with Dutilleux. Hesketh’s Inscription-Transformation is an extended exercise in textures in which complexity seems to be its own reason for being. The violin, often in its highest register, is set against an orchestra whose main purpose appears to be intensity. This could be effective in a five-minute work, but in this 14-minute one, it wears thin well before it wears out. As for the Dutilleux arrangement, this is Hesketh’s orchestral version of the piano suite, Au gré des ondes, and it is more effective than Hesketh’s original composition. Its six movements also add up to slightly less time than Hesketh’s single one: they work well as expressive miniatures, essentially small tone paintings of six musicians done in styles intended to reflect their work or their approaches to performance. Hesketh’s selection of illustrative instruments is first-rate, very neatly complementing Dutilleux’s very varied portraits of Claude Pascal, Jacqueline Bonneau, Pierre Sancan, Leon Kartun, Claude Arrieu, and Geneviève Joy. This is a case in which both the original work and the arrangement are worthy of being heard more often.
The arrangements on a new (+++) Navona CD featuring saxophonist Dave Camwell are unlikely ever to supplant the originals, being designed more to highlight Camwell himself than to focus in any meaningful way on Bach, Vivaldi, or Handel. Camwell arranges the Prelude from Bach’s Partita No. 3, BWV 1006, and the Allegro Assai from his Sonata No. 3, BWV 1005, for, respectively, one and two saxophones with piano. He arranges, for single saxophone and piano, Vivaldi’s entire Concerto for Oboe, RV 548, and Handel’s complete Sonata No. 3 for Violin, HWV 370. The arrangements are nicely done to take advantage of the saxophone’s warm, sumptuous tone, and Camwell plays the pieces with Romantic feeling that is inappropriate for the music but effective in its own way. Considerably more interesting is Charles Koechlin’s Épitaphe de Jean Harlow, written for alto saxophone, flute and piano, a suitably small-r romantic and expressive lament for the early death of the once-famous movie star, who died at age 26 in 1937. Here Camwell comes into his own, comfortable with the music in ways that he never quite seems to be when playing his arrangements of much older material. The balance of this CD is newer still. Robert Muczynski’s Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano (1971) is a short, well-varied work with considerable heft in its two movements. David DeBoor Canfield’s Concerto after Mendelssohn for Tenor Saxophone (2016-17), heard here in a 2018 version for saxophone and wind ensemble, plays around with several Mendelssohn works in a manner that ranges from mildly amusing to considerably overdone. John Rommereim’s Amara, Breath of Grace (2014) includes a choral ensemble and instructs the solo saxophone to improvise throughout. The idea is for the soloist to take cues (literally or figuratively) from the choir’s singing of the word “amara,” which means “grace” in the language of the Nigerian Igbo people. Whatever the intended meaning of this arrangement, what emerges here is a pleasant, tonal piece that sounds like a choral vocalise with saxophone sounds weaving in and out of the voices. This is the sort of music in which Camwell is clearly comfortable. The CD ends with Russell Peterson’s Concerto for Flute, Alto Saxophone and Symphonic Band (2009/2012). This is a pleasant three-movement piece in which the flute and saxophone complement each other well, although having the first two movements both slow and expressive makes matters rather soporific before the concluding Allegro brightens matters considerably. Camwell is Director of Jazz Studies at Troy University in Alabama, and the performers with him on this CD are drawn from the same venue. All contribute with skill and commitment, making the CD a treat for listeners who would like to hear a disparate set of unrelated saxophone performances – a generous 80 minutes that, in truth, will be somewhat too much for anyone looking for something more musically substantive and less focused on the sheer sound of the saxophone and the combinations in which Camwell presents it.