ADAMS, J: Violin Concerto / CORIGLIANO: Chaconne from The Red Violin (Charles Owen/ Chloe Hanslip/ Leonard Slatkin/ Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/ Tim Handley) (Naxos American Classics: 8.559302)
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John Corigliano (b. 1938): Chaconne from The Red Violin
George Enescu (1881-1955): Romanian Rhapsody No.1, arr. Waxman
Franz Waxman (1906-1967): Tristan and Isolde Fantasia
John Adams (b. 1947): Violin Concerto
This disc surveys the range of twentieth-century American music written for violin and orchestra from a relatively broad perspective, whether in terms of large-scale concertos, virtuosic transcriptions and concert paraphrases, or those works which examine the relationship between soloist and ensemble from a more unexpected angle.
This latter perspective is evident in the Chaconne that John Corigliano (b. 1938) created from his music for the 1998 film The Red Violin. Directed by Fran?ºois Girard, this tells the story of a violin, the last made by a master craftsman, and its journey as it changes hands on the way to becoming the star item at an auction. Rather than create a loose-knit suite out of his film-score, Corigliano took the melody that recurs throughout the film as basis for a chaconne, a set of variations that unfolds over a pattern constantly present in the bass register (often referred to as the 'ground bass'); in the process, guaranteeing both formal and harmonic consistency over a relatively extended span (to which end, it is worth noting that he has since composed a further two movements to create a more traditional concerto-type work). From the soloist's multi-stopped harmony and fugitive orchestral gestures at the beginning, the piece opens out melodically and expressively, the resultant theme reaching a brief but impassioned climax that is countered with aggressive music from the orchestra. The soloist responds accordingly, leading to brutal exchanges that collapse to leave solo woodwind musing plangently over lower strings. The soloist re-enters with similar material, the music continuing in its air of glacial sadness until further harsh exchanges and the return of the yearning main theme. A solo cadenza ensues, crystallizing the music's expressive essence, before a spectral passage for col legno strings (playing with the wood of the bow), brass and percussion brings about a last stage, the main theme now heard climactically on full orchestra as the soloist rushes upwards for the decisive close.
Although he was acclaimed as one of the finest violinists of his age, and recorded a large number of concertos both as soloist and latterly as conductor (notably with his protege Yehudi Menuhin), the Romanian composer George Enescu (1881-1955) never actually completed a violin concerto of his own. Aside from considerations of time and occasion, he was perhaps also conscious that the highly personal concept of virtuosity he evolved in his maturity was not necessarily suited to a display work such as audiences expected from a performer in his own music. Despite having composed a series of powerfully original orchestral and chamber works, Enescu's name is indelibly associated with the first of two Romanian Rhapsodies he composed in 1901, and which continue a line of nineteenth-century fantasias on national melodies, though the piece is too expertly written to be thought a mere 'potpourri' of tunes. The composer himself made a full transcription for violin and piano, but what is heard on this disc is an arrangement by Franz Waxman that is essentially a paraphrase on the music of the hectic second half of the piece. With the orchestration retained in all essentials, the soloist is left to pursue an animated path through the twists and turns of Enescu's potent musical imagination.
Although he composed a number of concert works both before and after his emigration to the United States, the German-born composer Franz Waxman (1906-1967) remains best known (as does his older Austrian contemporary Erich Korngold) for the numerous scores that made him a mainstay of the Hollywood film scene over three decades. Of several works written for violin and orchestra, the most virtuosic is his Carmen Fantasia, but the one that most reveals his understanding of and affection for Austro-German Romanticism is the Tristan and Isolde Fantasia. An effective concert item, it originally formed an emotional climax to the 1946 film Humoresque, directed by Jean Negulesco with a script by Clifford Odets. This tells the story of an ambitious violinist who becomes emotionally involved with his patroness, with tragic consequences. From a sombre opening in cellos and basses, violin and piano (which has a demanding obbligato part) are heard against the orchestra in what is a free conflation of elements from the Prelude and Liebestod of Wagner's opera. As in the latter, the work builds up to a lyrically effulgent climax (Isolde's line taken over by the violin), before falling away in a close of radiant calm.
The context in which the last work here is presented might suggest that violin concertos are not a prominent feature in American concert music. In fact, there are striking examples among the output of such composers as Samuel Barber [Naxos 8.559044], William Schuman [8.559083], Elliott Carter, Ned Rorem [8.559278] and Philip Glass [8.554568]. To these must be added the Violin Concerto of John Adams, which has achieved a notable success since its premi?¿re by Gidon Kremer in 1993. The composer has himself stated that his aim was a work in which the violin was enabled to sing constantly throughout, and this is evident throughout each of its three parts, which correspond, in formal outline, to the movements customary in a classical concerto.
Part One is essentially a continuously unfolding line of melody, heard against an orchestral backdrop in which woodwind and brass seem as if caught in a constant state of rising upwards from a discreet, often pizzicato bass in the lower strings. Almost a third of the way through, the soloist becomes more animated, and the overall accompaniment process, with percussion now assuming greater prominence, seems to speed up accordingly, yet without altering its essentially detached expression. The steady accumulation of rhythmic energy takes the movement through to a cadenza, which restores a measure of repose prior to a sombre and speculative close. Part Two is modelled, as is the Corigliano work above, on the form of a chaconne, in which the soloist patiently unfolds its continuous line. Although that line is in an audible state of metamorphosis with regard to its basic melodic components, the sensation is of music trapped in a state of becoming, an apt evocation of the line from the poet Robert Haas, "Body through which the dream flows", which also heads this movement. The harmonic texture periodically increases in density, giving to the music an expressive langour that is intensified by the discreet presence of bell sounds heard from within the orchestra. Part Three is marked Toccare (Toccata), which aptly sums up the movement's virtuoso quality, with soloist and orchestra engaged in an ongoing and rhythmically exacting series of exchanges that more pointedly recall the minimalist gestures of Adams's music from the previous decade. Several distinctive ideas are thrown up in its course, before strings and tom-toms press onwards to the stuttering close.