April 06, 2017


Mozart: Horn Concertos Nos. 1-4; Rondo, K371; Bassoon Concerto. Louis-Philippe Marsolais, horn; Mathieu Lussier, bassoon and conducting Les Violons du Roy. ATMA Classique. $16.99.

Bériot: Violin Concertos Nos. 4, 6 and 7; Air varié No. 4; Scène de ballet. Ayana Tsuji, violin; Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra, Pardubice conducted by Michael Halász. Naxos. $12.99.

Nielsen: Flute Concerto; Clarinet Concerto; Aladdin Suite. Samuel Coles, flute; Mark van de Wiel, clarinet; Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Paavo Järvi. Signum Classics. $17.99.

Jennifer Higdon: Viola Concerto; Oboe Concerto; All Things Majestic. Roberto Díaz, viola; James Button, oboe; Nashville Symphony conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero. Naxos. $12.99.

     Although established in the Baroque era as a way to contrast one or more solo instruments with a larger complement, the concerto evolved significantly, and quite quickly, as composers realized its potential, and as instruments – and their players – became more and more adept at more and more complex performance techniques. Concertos were often written for specific performers: Mozart wrote many of his piano concertos for himself and others for his pupils. His horn concertos, however, were written for Joseph Leitgeb (1732-1811), and matched so well to Leitgeb’s abilities that it is possible to note the considerable skill required in the early concertos and the diminution of Leitgeb’s ability, for which Mozart made allowances, later on. Sometimes played on the natural horn for which they were written, sometimes on a valve horn, the four completed concertos are by any standards music of great beauty and wonderful flow. Louis-Philippe Marsolais plays them with understanding as well as skill on a new ATMA Classique recording that also features the clean, clear and chamber-like sound of Les Violons du Roy under Mathieu Lussier. Indeed, the lightness of the scoring and the clarity of pacing and balance are major attractions throughout the CD, which also includes a standalone horn movement, Rondo, K371, that was probably intended to be part of a fifth concerto but never made it that far. There is polish as well as hunting-horn proclamation in Marsolais’ handling of all the horn works, and Lussier gives him fine backup throughout. And then Lussier himself shines forth as soloist in Mozart’s earliest wind concerto, for bassoon – a work that allows the bassoon to show its virtuosic capabilities and its emotive ones as well, with its better-known clownish and bubbly sounds reserved for the final movement. Lussier seems genuinely to enjoy playing this music, taking his instrument through all its paces while retaining exemplary control of the ensemble.

     By the time of the Romantic era, concertos were serving stirring emotional purposes as well as ones of display and exploration of instrumental capabilities. Naxos has been very slowly working its way through the complete violin concertos of Charles-Auguste de Bériot (1802-1870), having now released recordings of nine of the composer’s 10 – with entirely different soloists and ensembles. Nos. 1, 8 and 9 were recorded all the way back in 1986 by Takako Nishizaki and the RTBF Symphony Orchestra, Brussels, conducted by Alfred Walter. Nos. 2, 3 and 5 were recorded in 2006 by Philippe Quint and the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra under Kirk Trevor. And now Nos. 4, 6 and 7 are available in performances from 2016 by Ayana Tsuji and the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra, Pardubice conducted by Michael Halász. Tsuji, a first-rate young violinist, seems to have no trouble whatsoever with the complex bowing techniques and other performance difficulties of these works; and while the emotional elements of the concertos are primarily surface-level, she brings out what feelings the works do have with very considerable skill. Bériot wrote these for himself to play, and it is clear from the techniques required that he deserved the very high esteem in which he was held in his time. These days he is better known as a pedagogue than as a concerto composer, but Tsuji and Halász bring out what depths the concertos possess very well indeed. The CD actually had plenty of room on it to include a performance of No. 10, the only one of these concertos not yet available from Naxos, but instead it offers two extended showpieces that show the composer’s skill in other forms. Air varié No. 4, titled “Montagnard,” is a fairly typical set of variations on a fairly ordinary theme, a work not intended to go beyond superficiality but presenting its material with great smoothness and attractively varied technique. And Scène de ballet, perhaps Bériot’s best-known piece and actually a series of different forms at different speeds, comes off simply splendidly here: Tsuji and Halász play the music with substantial joie de vivre and a fine sense of pacing and balance. Hopefully that elusive Concerto No. 10 will be forthcoming from these same performers without the need for an extended wait.

     Neither brightness nor a sense of fun will be found in the Nielsen concertos heard on a new Signum Classics release: these are serious works that go well past the era of Romantic expressiveness and handle the contrast of solo instrument with ensemble quite differently. They are, in one way, tied to the past: Nielsen wrote them for specific performers. But the ways in which they break with earlier concertos are more notable than any in which they resemble them. The Flute Concerto goes beyond Nielsen’s usual refusal to allow the ear to settle on a work’s home key (even his First Symphony begins in one key and ends in another): it is unsettled throughout, landing in one key sometimes, another at other times, and generally keeping listeners unsure of where it is going tonally (the first movement alone is in three keys and seems to end in a fourth). The work is also in two movements rather than the traditional three or four. It feels somewhat like chamber music, and in this way (and this way alone) bears some resemblance to the concertos of Mozart’s time. But the prominent bass trombone makes it quite clear that this is a concerto of a much later era. Samuel Coles handles it stylishly, with very fine support from the Philharmonia Orchestra under Paavo Järvi. The Clarinet Concerto is an even more dissonant work, and also includes an instrument not usually associated with the solo instrument here: the snare drum, which repeatedly challenges the clarinet and often seems to throw or pull it off track. Nielsen’s tonal approach stretches even farther here – the keys of E and F struggle with each other throughout the work. And now the composer produces an extended concerto in a single movement, although its sections break down into what could be called four movements played without pause. Keeping this work moving smartly ahead and giving it cohesiveness can be a real challenge for soloist and orchestra alike. Mark van de Wiel and Järvi prove themselves equal to the task – and Järvi does a particularly nice job with the concerto’s textures, which reflect scoring that is even closer to chamber music than is that of the Flute Concerto. The orchestra gets its own chance to shine in the Aladdin Suite, a lighter work than either concerto and one that in many ways sounds less like “typical Nielsen,” to the extent that this ever-developing composer had a “typical” sound. The seven-movement suite moves along through a series of suitably contrasting scenic displays. The fifth of these, “The Marketplace in Ispahan,” is the most unusual and sonically interesting, although the concluding “Negro Dance” makes for a rousing conclusion as an orchestral display piece. Taken as a whole, this recording is a showcase for two very adept woodwind soloists, an always-excellent orchestra, and a composer whose non-symphonic works remain, more than 80 years after his death, less commonly performed than their quality suggests they should be.

     Concertos continued to develop after Nielsen’s, of course, and remain a popular form for composers to use today. Jennifer Higdon (born 1962) has some interesting and unusual ideas about how to handle the format, as listeners will hear on a new Naxos CD. Higdon’s penchant for using tonality and atonality as the mood strikes her is evident in the concertos here, of which the Viola Concerto (2014) is especially successful. The opening movement is quite lovely, sharing in some of the musical sentiments heard later on the disc in All Things Majestic. The work’s second movement is spirited, forthright and folklike in sound and feeling. The finale has it both ways, its lyrical elements eventually giving way to brightness and jazzy, dance-like vitality. Roberto Díaz, for whom the work was written, plays it with great style and apparently effortless virtuosity, and the Nashville Symphony under Giancarlo Guerrero provides first-rate backup. Higdon’s concerto is not in the same league with the 20th-century giants of the form, the concertos by Bartók and Walton, but it is attractive, well-made and a worthy addition to the repertoire for an instrument that to this day remains comparatively neglected in a solo role. The Oboe Concerto (2005) is more consistently lyrical, with an unusual single-movement structure that both begins and ends with a single sustained note in the solo instrument’s middle register – a hint and affirmation that beauty and warmth of sound are central here (although there is a certain amount of playfulness as well, in the work’s middle section). James Button plays the concerto with a lovely tone, and again the orchestra provides fine support. All Things Majestic (2011) complements the concertos in some ways but is more obvious than they are: it is a set of four scene-paintings of Grand Teton National Park, and while the individual movements (“Teton Range,” “String Lake,” “Snake River” and “Cathedrals”) contain appropriately descriptive musical elements, the suite as a whole goes on rather long and is pretty much one-dimensional in its repeated (and again repeated) portrayals of beauty and expansiveness. It is pleasant and accessible music but not as distinguished or interesting as the two concertos here – which, individually and together, show just how effectively the concerto form itself continues to thrive.

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