September 03, 2009


Niels Wilhelm Gade: Violin Concerto in D minor; Peter Erasmus Lange-Müller: Violin Concerto in C major; Rued Langgaard: Violin Concerto. Christina Åstrand, violin; Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by John Storgårds. Dacapo. $16.99.

Prokofiev: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Violin Sonata No. 1. Lydia Mordkovitch, violin; Gerhard Oppitz, piano; Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi. Chandos. $11.99.

     The violin concerto and the Romantic era are inextricably linked, but surprisingly, many composers of the time came up with only a single example: think of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Brahms and Dvořák. Add to that list the Danish composers Gade, Lange-Müller and Langgaard: each composed just one work in this form. None of these pieces is well known outside Denmark; indeed, they are not particularly well known there. Having all three together on one CD presents an unusual opportunity to hear some less-known violin concertos representing a time in which composers strove to extract emotional meaning from their works – but apparently found, in many cases, that they could do so only once in an orchestral piece with the violin at its center. Gade (1817-1890) wrote his concerto late in life, in 1880, and sent it as a Christmas gift to famed violinist Joseph Joachim – for whom Schumann, Brahms, Bruch and Dvořák had composed concertos. Joachim did not always play the works written for him, but he did give the first performance of Gade’s concerto – which, despite this auspicious start, never quite caught on. Christina Åstrand’s lovely playing actually shows why: the work begins strongly, with a beautiful and grand-scale opening theme, but thereafter it tends to meander, and the final rondo, although pleasant enough, is musically rather weak. Interestingly, it was Gade’s son, Axel Gade, who gave the first performance (in 1904) of the concerto by Lange-Müller (1850-1926), a composer best known (to the extent that he is known at all) for his vocal music. Lange-Müller wrote the concerto in 1902, filling it with long lines and soaring, dancelike themes, including (in the second movement) the sounds of Norwegian folk music. One oddity of this interesting but not-quite-compelling work is that the first movement has a place for an optional cadenza (Axel Gade and others played one; Åstrand does not). Another is that the work as a whole seems more a fantasia with violin than a concerto for it – perhaps the lack of virtuoso fireworks has kept it out of most violinists’ repertoire. As for the concerto by Langgaard (1893-1952), it was written much later – in 1943-4 – but is essentially Romantic in approach, as was Langgaard’s music in general. However, it seems even less of a concerto than does Lange-Müller’s: Langgaard’s one-movement work lasts less than 10 minutes and gives a concertante piano (played by Ville Hautala in this recording) as much prominence as the violin. Langgaard’s piece feels more like expanded chamber music than a traditional violin concerto – although it does have a certain charm that Åstrand and the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra under John Storgårds bring out effectively.

     The re-release of Lydia Mordkovitch’s recording of Prokofiev’s two violin concertos pulls listeners back into traditional three-movement concerto form, although Prokofiev’s works (from 1917 and 1935, respectively) have less of the Romantic era about them than do those by Gade, Lange-Müller and Langgaard. Mordkovitch’s recordings date to 1988 and have stood up very well. She neatly balances the lyricism of the first concerto with its episodes of considerable virtuosity. Prokofiev placed a sardonic scherzo rather than a slow movement at the center of this concerto, and Mordkovitch handles it skillfully, then allowing the lyricism of the first movement to re-emerge effectively in the work’s finale. In the second concerto, which reverts to the traditional form of a slow middle movement, Mordkovitch again focuses on the work’s lyrical side – which is dominant through much of the piece – but also handles the strong accents and frequent rhythmic shifts of the finale to fine effect. And she is ably backed up by the Scottish National Orchestra under Neeme Järvi. Interestingly, the third work on this CD, the Violin Sonata No. 1, is longer than either of the concertos. Prokofiev started composing this work in 1938 but did not finish it until 1946 (by which time the sonata designated as No. 2 had already been performed). This sonata is quite a serious piece, with little of the occasional puckishness of the violin concertos. Its four movements are of nearly equal length but of contrasting character. Mordkovitch and pianist Gerhard Oppitz recorded the sonata together in 1984, and even after 25 years, their nuanced, closely intertwined reading is highly effective – and capped with a splendidly realized finale whose complex rhythms flow beautifully from both instruments.

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