Violin concertos and a vocal recital feature in Charlotte Gardner’s pick of classical releases for the dCS Edit.Tags: Music,
Brahms: Adagio from Violin Concerto
Lisa Batiashvili, Staatskapelle Dresden, Christian Thielemann
The violin is the star of our latest Classical Choices playlist, with two violin concertos featuring in our pick of new releases. Our archive recording choice also leans into this theme, and is inspired by my recent foray into the archives to select standout versions of Brahms’ Violin Concerto for the July 2023 issue of Gramophone magazine. Opening the playlist is the central Adagio from my ‘top choice’, picked from almost a century of recording options: Lisa Batiashvili’s 2013 reading for Deutsche Grammophon with Christian Thielemann and the Staatskapelle Dresden.
Duello d’archi a Venezia
Chouchane Siranossian, Venice Baroque Orchestra, Andrea Marcon
When the Venice Baroque Orchestra launch into Duello d’archi a Venezia’s curtain-raiser, Veracini’s Concerto for 8 instruments in D major, the first thing that strikes you is not the playing (fizzing as it is) but the capturing. The room, sadly unnamed in the sleeve notes, is so very present, and the orchestral players sound so immediate, you can hear everything right down to the gentle click of oboe keys. When Chouchane Siranossian eventually explodes into wonderful rich tones, with her precision-filled virtuosic panache, you feel as though you are almost under her nose. This isn’t overwhelming – instead, it’s exhilarating. This is dramatic music, dramatically played, and for it to be so dramatically captured feels eminently right.
Conceptually, Siranossian’s programme presents an imaginary ‘battle of the bows’ between Venice’s ‘four musketeers’ of the violin (Vivaldi, Veracini, Tartini and Locatelli) in the first half of the 18th century. The conflict is perhaps not entirely imaginary, given that Vivaldi is said to have described Tartini as a “bad violinist,” Tartini to have described Vivaldi’s music as “superficial”, and Veracini to have been such a hot-head that he once threw himself out of a window after a row with the German violin virtuoso Pisendel.
Virtuosity was the onstage means through which these Venetian violinist-composers battled it out, and the four concerti chosen for this album (one apiece from each of the aforementioned) present this in all its guises, from provocative to lyrical, intimate to theatrical. The project involved some serious scholarly work, with Siranossian developing the Veracini’s solo capriccio (essentially a cadenza) from motifs found in other Veracini works.
Siranossian sounds wonderful: top moments include her dynamically and dramatically wide-ranging central recitative in Vivaldi’s ‘Violin Concerto in D major RV 208’ (which features a fabulous use of slides for theatrical effect), and her sweetly curving high-register lyricism across the Locatelli, as the orchestra soulfully dips and swells beneath her. The whole album is a finesse-filled firecracker, and I’d highly recommend listening to it all once you’ve soaked up the Vivaldi.
Complete Songs of Alma Mahler, Elise Caluwaerts and Marianna Shirinyan
Gustav Mahler’s wife Alma hasn’t always enjoyed the greatest press coverage, thanks in no small part to her extra-marital affair with the architect Walter Gropius. The event deeply shocked her husband, yet it’s not hard to understand how it happened.
Born in 1897 in Vienna to the painter Emil Schindler and the mezzo soprano Anna Bergman, and raised in a Bohemian intellectual manner, Alma was neither a shrinking wallflower or a mere hobbyist when, aged 21, she met Mahler. In fact, she was a talented composer who had studied under Zemlinsky, and learned to play all five hours of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde by heart on the piano, all while squeezing in a three-year on-off affair with the painter Gustav Klimt.
Mahler, who was twice her age, wanted Alma to stop composing. She capitulated, but it clearly caused her emotional damage. Following her affair, Mahler appeared to have realised the impact of his demand, and withdrew his sanction. He went on to help her prepare some of 50-plus songs for publication with his own publisher. Only 17 of these are known to have survived. All of them are featured in this new recital from soprano Elise Caluwaerts and pianist Marianna Shirinya, who uses a Steinway from 1899 (the year most of the songs were written).
Emotionally, there’s often an introspective feel to them, although passion and sensuousness ride equally high. Compositionally speaking, their language is complex, often boldly chromatic, and late Romantic in tone. They’re also thoroughly individual-sounding. Even when you hear another composer’s voice rise up, that voice is so very re-tinted and transformed through Alma’s own lens that it sounds like a sophisticated tribute rather than unconscious imitation. Take the passing whisper of Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor in in Ansturm (Storm), for example, or the way Die Stille Stadt (the silent town) opens on Wagner’s Tristan chord, or the faint Schubertian whisper hovering over In meines Vaters Garten.
Caluwaerts and Shirinyan bring perfectly-pitched limpid purity to all this on-the-page magic. Caluwaerts is effortlessly agile across the songs’ wide vocal range, her tone ranging from clean and silvery to richer roundedness, and her inflections faithfully meet Alma’s detailed word-painting.
Shirinyan, meanwhile, provides close, clearly and naturally articulated partnership and comment, her historical piano’s lighter tones perfectly complementing the whole. It’s a shame that the accompanying booklet doesn’t provide the song texts, but listeners can at least find them elsewhere online. For the playlist, I’ve given you the Vier Lieder, published in 1911.
Bruch: Violin Concerto No 1; Florence Price: Violin Concertos
Randall Goosby, The Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nezet-Seguin
Young American violinist Randall Goosby’s 2021 debut album, Roots, turned heads with its mix of new and old, core-ish and rediscovered repertoire honouring Black contributions to the musical tradition. His first concerto album picks up some of Roots’s finest threads, pairing a time-honoured repertoire war-horse, Bruch’s Violin Concerto, with the two violin concertos written by one of the prominent African-American composers on Roots, Florence Price – works which were written in 1939 and 1953, but were not rediscovered until 2009.
Anyone who thinks the world doesn’t need yet another Bruch concerto may readjust that view after hearing what Goosby, Yannick Nezet-Seguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra have achieved with their recital. The architecture is phenomenally crafted, with its balancing of taut spaciousness, and its pulse-racing spring, thrust and drive. Goosby draws you in with his silkily lithe directness, purity and poise, his initial Prelude entry packing punch for being quieter and calmer than is often despatched. Further electricity comes via the super-sharpness with which the orchestra delivers Bruch’s detailed, drama-rich dynamic markings, and its overall clean-contoured agility and emotional commitment, with some especially great orchestral dialogue happening in the Adagio.
On to the Price, and the first concerto sounds a little like what might happen if you combined Dvořák with Gershwin, with its jazz-infused, Romantic-inspired lyricism. There’s plenty for an orchestra and violinist to get their teeth into, with its frequent switches between delicacy and punch, push and pull. Goosby handles the first movement cadenza’s bluesy acrobatics with polish and satisfying architectural pacing. The proud single-movement Second Concerto, with its kaleidoscopically shifting colours, textures and metre, is handled with enjoyable sparkle, spontaneity and soul. The album ends with a violin and orchestra arrangement of Price’s Adoration, originally for organ.
In the name of giving you an overall flavour of the album, I’ve committed an act of utter musical vandalism and picked the first movement of the Bruch (from which the Adagio follows without a break, so steel yourselves for the ugly severance), followed by Price’s second concerto.