20th Century Violin Concertos
Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Bartók, Ligeti, Eötvös
Media Review / Listening Diary 2014-05-28
2014-11-12 — Re-posting as is (WordPress)
2016-07-21 — Brushed up for better readability
Saturated with always hearing the classic and romantic violin concertos by Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky? Even if you don’t like the strict dodecaphony of the Second Vienna School, the 20th century has some interesting options / nice concertos to offer which are very well worth listening to!
Prokofiev & Stravinsky — Kopatchinskaja / Jurowski
naïve V 5352 (CD, stereo); ℗ / © 2013
Booklet: 32 pp. f/e/d
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Violin Concerto No.2 in G minor, op.63
Sergei Prokofiev wrote his Violin Concerto No.2 in G minor, op.63 in 1935, after the composer’s decision to return to his homeland. It’s music that is meant to be melodic, using simple melodies, without sounding trivial / banal. The result is in many ways close to the popular “Peter and the Wolf” in style: parts of the first movement (Allegro moderato, 11′) may take some listening to get used to that music. But that’s mostly just some short, provoking segments: the movement also contains lovely melodies, and I now really like it!
The second movement (Andante assai, 10′) is simply marvelous: don’t expect a romantic piece! But those melodies still are of utter beauty, and towards the end of the movement that are passages that strongly remind me of Elgar’s “Pomp & Circumstance” marches! The shorter, last movement (Allegro ben marcato, 6’15”) has a strong, almost wild, rhythmic folk dance element to it. For sure, it’s not hard to “understand”. Patricia Kopatchinskaja is in her element in such music: one can feel how much she enjoys it.
Briefly: I can just give a very warm recommendation to take a plunge into this music!
Violin Concerto in D
Igor Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto in D is very different. But it’s just as nice, nevertheless! Stravinsky wrote this concerto in 1931, about 10 years after he started his neoclassical period with the ballet Pulcinella. that neoclassical period was going to last till around 1954, when the composer moved on to his “serial period”, with techniques such as dodecaphony. In his ballet Pulcinella, Stravinsky adopted music that was at that time attributed to Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710 – 1726). Most of this music has later been attributed to composers such as Domenico Gallo (1730 – 1768), see the post “Listening Diary 2013-12-21” for an example.
I don’t think there is any such direct citation in Stravinsky’s violin concerto. But the piece as a whole, refers to baroque models, especially in the Toccata and in the Capriccio. The concerto features four movements:
- Toccata — 5’30”
- Aria I — 4’18”
- Aria II — 4’58”
- Capriccio — 5’54”
An Extra Cadenza…
Patricia Kopatchinskaja adds one more track “Cadenza”, with a remark in the liner notes “which Stravinsky didn’t write“, where she plays a 3-minute cadenza of her own, in the second part together with Pieter Schoeman (the orchestra’s lead violinist). So, the CD has a fifth track for this concerto:
- Cadenza, by Patricia Kopatchinskaja — 2’53”
The liner notes are unclear on whether Patricia Kopatchinskaja would play her cadenza in concert together with Stravinsky’s violin concerto, and if so, where within the concert. There is only a remark referring to the Toccata, indicating that Stravinsky decided not to include a cadenza, but I’m sure the artists would not interrupt Stravinsky’s musical structure by inserting a cadenza. The insertion between two movements seems a questionable action. So, I conclude that the five movements ought to be played as present on this CD, with the cadenza following the concerto, maybe as a kind of encore.
The concerto starts with a couple of “shock chords”. Though that’s only the very first times I listened to this music: by now I even like these chords! The concerto then proceeds in a style that reminds me of Pulcinella (also from the instrumentation in the orchestra). It’s a style that I really like. Stravinsky applies the same trick to the subsequent movements, whereby only in the last movement (Capriccio) the continuation is “pulcinella-esque”, though still quite different: the Capriccio is very rhythmic, has lots of drive, is really enthralling, particularly in Patricia Kopatchinskaja’s strong, vivid and heart-felt interpretation!
As the annotation suggests, the two Aria movements are strongly melody-centered and pretty vocal. The Cadenza starts contemplative, then turns more & more virtuosic, while remaining strong also melodically. It’s very nice, also where it turns into a Tarantella-like duet: excellent! Overall, it’s hard to imagine a soloist that is better suited for this concert. She lives in this music, her tone is emotional, never sterile, her playing utterly virtuosic. The accompaniment by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Vladimir Jurowski is agile, transparent, the orchestra sound balanced. I can recommend this part as much as the Prokofiev!
More Violin Concertos from the 20th Century:
The two recordings below came out on top (more or less ex aequo) in a recent (blind) radio comparison of five recordings of Bartók’s second violin concerto — not really competing with each other, but as complementary views of that composition. I could not resist purchasing both CDs / CD sets:
Bartók — Faust / Harding
harmonia mundi HMC 902144 (CD, stereo); ℗ 2013
Booklet: 32 pp. f/e/d
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Bartók / Ligeti / Eötvös — Kopatchinskaja / Eötvös
naïve V 5285 (2 CDs, stereo); ℗ 2011-2012 / © 2012
Booklet: 36 pp. f/e/d
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Violin Concerto No.1, Sz.36 / BB 48a
Bartók wrote his Violin Concerto No.1, Sz.36 / BB 48a at the age of 26, 1908, in a period when the composer had just fallen in love. It’s very different from the second concerto, described below. This concerto is included in the first CD above, played by Isabelle Faust, accompanied by Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. Isabelle Faust describes her approach to the two violin concertos by Bartók on 6 pages in the liner notes; the first concerto was challenging, as the sources aren’t all that clear — but she did have the solo score from the first performance, not only including fingering, bowing etc. by the soloist, but also with comments / annotations by the composer.
Given that care and dedication that Isabelle Faust has spent on research for her performance, I’m sure that her interpretation is as authentic as it can possibly be, knowing also that she is an extremely competent, reflected and conscious instrumentalist. The concerto features two movements:
- Andante sostenuto (9’49”)
- Allegro giocoso (12’19”)
The times given are those in Isabelle Faust’s recording. The first movement starts with a violin solo in a tonality that is typical of Bartók of that period: together with Zoltán Kodály (1882 – 1967) he had just discovered that the origins of folk music in Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria were based on a pentatonic scale. He started using these scales and the rhythms of such folk music in his compositions. One characteristic of pentatonic scales is their lack of lead tones, making such music appear somewhat “aimless”, as it typically lacks cadences that the traditional, Western music mind tends to look for / hold on to.
So, in the first movement I sense that the music is somewhat “floating”. I think this is the biggest hurdle towards getting used to (some of) Bartók’s composition(s): just don’t watch out for cadences or other, traditional harmonic moves! The harmonies are moving forward, though! In fact, if one lets that music “work”, one finds warm, longing moods, calm, serene sceneries, soothing as well as highly emotional passages. It’s definitely very nice music!
The second movement is much more accentuated rhythmically. It also features melodic fragments that are easy to recognize and follow, often even quite vocal (and also rather virtuosic), pictorial, almost telling a story (in contrast to the first movement which mostly works through moods / impressions). Once one is “in” this music, it often feels highly romantic, even though there are dodecaphonic elements in it!
No, this is not Isabelle Faust’s vibrato-less playing throughout, as in her recordings of music by Bach and Beethoven. When Bartók composed his violin concerts, violinists were indeed using vibrato almost throughout. I think that some vibrato (where the voice is emotional) fits Bartók’s concerto. Needless to say: Isabelle Faust’s playing is superb, flawless, engaged and engaging. Another very nice recording, and very much worth exploring!
Addendum: when returning to this music after listening to the compositions below I felt truly enchanted by Bartók’s first concerto, and I really enjoyed it!
Violin Concerto No.2, Sz.112 / BB 117
The Violin Concerto No.2, Sz.112 / BB 117 was written 30 years after his first one, in 1938, commissioned by the violinist Zóltán Székely. As Isabelle Faust writes, the situation with the sources is much better here, as the composer was carefully proofreading the final version. Before discussing the two recordings of this composition, a short description (I don’t want to reproduce the detailed information given by Isabelle Faust in her liner notes). The concerto has three movements:
I. Allegro non troppo
Durations: Faust/Harding: 15’18” — Kopatchinskaja/Eötvös: 16’58”
A movement with a wonderful, almost romantic beginning / first theme, then rapidly picking up motion, temperament. Bartók uses dodecaphonic elements in the melodic second theme, but overall (despite some violent interjections) in this movement he maintains some tonality that the listener can “hold on to”. Frequently, one encounters almost folklorist elements.
II. Andante tranquillo
Durations: Faust/Harding: 9’16” — Kopatchinskaja/Eötvös: 10’02”
The first three notes in the orchestra remind me of the Adagietto from Mahler’s fifth symphony. That only lasts until the solo presents the (very nice, vocal) theme for this movement, which is a set of seven variations, vastly different in character, technique and sonority, from serene to violent and dramatic. The theme is definitely tonal, though of a tonality that is constantly moving into new “spaces”, i.e., without a “tonal home” as in classical and early romantic music.
III. Allegro molto
Durations: Faust/Harding: 11’15” — Kopatchinskaja/Eötvös: 12’07”
The last movement is virtuosic, emotional, vivid, with strong outbursts. It is based on material from the first movement, but more dominated by rhythmic elements. Bartók’s first version of this movement had a purely orchestral ending; the soloist who first performed this concerto asked Bartók for an ending with a virtuosic solo, which the composer then delivered in a second version.
Some brief notes on the actual performances:
Isabelle Faust / Daniel Harding
The artists Isabelle Faust and Daniel Harding are (in my personal perception) putting this concerto into a classical context, at least to some degree, i.e., into the tradition of the “big” concertos by Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, etc., and listening to Isabelle Faust’s interpretation really makes me appreciate this concert as being among the “big” ones in recent musical history.
Isabelle Faust’s playing is impeccable, engaged, virtuosic. Yet, she does not play herself into the foreground, but rather appears determined to put herself at the service of the composer, which is also underlined by her serious and thorough research in the available original sources. The fact that she and Daniel Harding decided to play the first version with the orchestral ending is indicative of her approach. Yet, her interpretation is by no means just intellectual or “scientific”!
Patricia Kopatchinskaja / Péter Eötvös
Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Péter Eötvös take an entirely different approach. Of course, Patricia Kopatchinskaja is an entirely different personality! Where Isabelle Faust appears to take an objective approach, trying to present the composer’s original intent, Patricia Kopatchinskaja rather seems to ask “what (or: what else) is in this music?”, or “where (or: how far) can I take this music?”.
She puts all her emotionality, her vivid personality and her expression into her interpretation: her playing is more extroverted and dramatic, her dynamics and agogics more expansive (this is likely also why her interpretation lasts slightly longer), her playing more expressive, up to “very emotional intonation and articulation”. She does not shy away from almost vulgar expression. But of course she also remains open to the many intimate aspects of this concerto, too! It fits her interpretation that she plays the final version of the last movement with the very virtuosic, brilliant solo ending.
I can fully understand why the judges / critics in the radio comparison were not able to elect a winner among these two performances: if one wants to venture an encounter with Bartók’s concerto (and I very much recommend exploring this music!), then one really ought to have both interpretations. Both are excellent, extraordinary one way or another, and the two recordings are complementary to a large degree!
Violin Concerto “Seven”
Péter Eötvös is conducting his own Violin Concerto “Seven”, which he composed in 2006. This premiered under Pierre Boulez (1925 – 2016) in Lucerne, in 2007. Eötvös wrote this as “Memorial for the Columbia Astronauts”, i.e., the seven astronauts who died in the “Columbia” accident in 2003. The composition features four Cadenzas and a Part II:
- First Cadenza (1’29”)
- Second Cadenza (0’48”)
- Third Cadenza (2’55”)
- Fourth Cadenza (5’45”)
- Part II (12’02”)
The times are again those on this CD. The accompanying orchestra is the same as with the Bartók concerto: the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra under the direction of the composer, Péter Eötvös. Though here, the orchestra is split into seven mixed groups. There are only six first violins in the orchestra, placed around the audience — and seven with the soloist on the podium. Details about the composition and the instrumentation can be found on the composer’s Web page. As the composer is conducting, a discussion about the authenticity and the quality of the performance is pointless. I’m sure that Patricia Kopatchinskaja is far more than “just adequate” as instrumentalist for this composition. I’ll therefore just briefly report my impressions from listening to this recording.
The Listening Experience
I think the best way to approach this composition is trying to describe one’s impression: as a naive listener without score, there is no point in trying a formal discussion of this music; I haven’t even tried looking for classic or novel formal principles in this music, but perceived this as free-form composition. Péter Eötvös tries to describe (or maybe rather circumscribe), commemorate and digest the dramatic events around the loss of the space shuttle Columbia and its seven astronauts. Those events weren’t nice in any way, and through the media coverage, millions of people could (and did) actually witness the disaster in real-time.
So, the music can’t (and shouldn’t) really be “nice” and pleasant. Almost, at least: the short first two cadenzas could probably be thought as describing the joys of space flight. They are indeed nice, ethereal; but then, in the third cadenza one can sense chaos breaking out, things going terribly wrong, falling apart. It’s not a loud or noisy tragedy: the disaster is a distant one. Also the fourth cadenza is mostly silent. I’m not sure whether this is the apotheosis of the astronauts, or rather the public slowly realizing the ongoing tragedy, the weeping of the families on the ground, or a combination of all of this?
To me, Part II is less descriptive, maybe more of a reflection of the situation of humans facing / in the hands of a technology that they have created, but can’t fully control. The sorcerer’s apprentice, taken to the extreme!
There is a very virtuosic and demanding solo part, using extreme techniques, tonal range and means of expression. And yes, the Part II is often harsh in its outbursts. But that’s more than natural, given the unpleasant events, the tragedy it refers to. As such, it remains impressive, memorable piece of music, even though it will definitely never be as close to my heart as many classical pieces!
A first version of Ligeti’s Violin Concerto featured 3 movements and premiered in 1990, with Saschko Gawriloff playing the violin. The second / final version features 5 movements and was completed in 1992; it was first performed again by Saschko Gawriloff, together with the Ensemble Modern, under Péter Eötvös. The five movements are
- Praeludium: Vivacissimo luminoso (3’57”)
- Aria – Hoquetus – Choral: Andante con moto (7’14”)
- Intermezzo: Presto fluido (2’24”)
- Passacaglia: Lento intenso (7’06”)
- Appassionato: Agitato molto (7’05”)
The times given are those in the above recording. The last movement features a big cadenza; the score includes the cadenza played by Saschko Gawriloff, but the soloist is invited / allowed to play his/her own. This is what Patricia Kopatchinskaja is doing. The accompaniment (just 23 instruments in the Ensemble Modern) and the direction are the same as in the first performance. And once again, Patricia Kopatchinskaja is a most competent artist in this performance. She lives in this type of music (in an interview she states that playing modern music is as natural to her as breathing)! A discussion about authenticity and quality of the performance is therefore pointless, I’ll just add a few remarks about my listening experience.
The Listening Experience
Now, for a listener, this is quite a different beast! In Péter Eötvös’s composition the listener may use the “underlying narrative” as an aid in “understanding” the music. Bartók’s compositions above are still partially tonal (while using elements on dodecaphony), and bearing strong rhythmic characteristics. In contrast, Ligeti does not offer much in “understanding aids”: quite to the contrary, he often seems to provoke, if not intentionally upset the listener. Often, not always: his music often has a fairly strong rhythmic drive & structure that will “drag / carry the listener along”.
But also Ligeti often uses almost folklorist, vocal melodic elements, is often quite tonal. However, such “melodic joy” often only lasts for moments, sometimes just long enough that the listener starts feeling comfortable with it. Then, the composer deliberately destroys that harmony with often sharp, grinding dissonances. This is achieved by having a violin and a viola (among 11 strings in the accompaniment) using scordatura, four wind players intermittently playing ocarina, the two horn players playing both modern instruments as well as natural horns with pure harmonics, and the two percussionists also playing lotus flutes. The ocarinas and the lotus flutes add a “primitive touch” with their vibrato-less sound and “archaic pitch”, which is often quite unsettling to the listener:
I. Praeludium: Vivacissimo luminoso
The movement starts with the sound of empty violin strings, then, tonal harmonies are joining in gradually. But very soon, sharp disharmonies appear, plus strong interjections by the soloist, as the piece picks up pace (and the solo part picking up virtuosity!). The movement ends with a variation of the initial section, then dies away into silence. Quite entertaining, overall, sometimes as busy as an ant’s nest!
II. Aria – Hoquetus – Choral: Andante con moto
The Aria is a beautiful, solemn, folk song-like melody, initially just the solo violin, then with the addition of other strings as accompaniment, later gradually changing over to the dissonant, agitated Hoquetus (Hocket); the Choral (chorale) remains mostly dissonant and archaic, though it calms down gradually, really ending like a medieval chorale.
III. Intermezzo: Presto fluido
In this short movement, the solo starts with a melancholic, nice melody, “spiced up” with a rather menacing, though initially calm accompaniment. Then, the music gets more and more agitated, even hectic. As the liner notes state, the movement ends in a “drive down into a catastrophe”.
IV. Passacaglia: Lento intenso
This movement starts with a series of static, resting chords. This is the ground to the Passacaglia, and the accompaniment to a rather passionate, dramatic violin solo. More and more, dissonant interjections from the accompaniment disrupt the harmony, though.
V. Appassionato: Agitato molto
Passionate and agitated, as the annotation requests, but also often dissonant, very virtuosic, sometimes also archaic. For example, in the beginning, ocarinas and lotus flutes dominate. Towards the end, the soloist is asked to accompany herself, by singing an accompaniment. Patricia Kopatchinskaja’s voice fits nicely into this music and movement. I wonder what this sounded like when Saschko Gawriloff performed this music for the first time: I can’t imagine that a male voice would fit nearly as well as in this recording! Overall, a really entertaining movement!
It took me listening to this music a couple of times, but by now I can state that I even enjoy that music. It’s mostly a matter of “tuning one’s expectations”, i.e., not to expect anything related to any other music of the 19th or 20th century!