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Violin & Cello
* Violin Concerto, op. 24
* Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Cello, & Orchestra, op. 29
Anastasia Khitruk, violin
Andrey Tchekmazov, cello
Russian Philharmonic Orchestra/Dmitry Yablonsky
Naxos 8.570350 Total Time: 65:40
Summary for the Busy Executive: Two def jams in phat performances, as the
kids used to say.
Like many others, I first made the acquaintance of Miklos Rozsa's violin
concerto through the Heifetz LP on RCA. Tailored for Heifetz's playing,
the concerto both brooded and threw off virtuoso sparks. For many years,
you could get only that recording, even into the CD era. Of course,
Heifetz was to the violin as Horowitz was to the piano, so you didn't
"make do" with an inferior performance - as it happens, one of Heifetz's
best. I'd suspect that Heifetz is still at least second in line, even
at this late date, for you now have your pick of recordings (although,
ironically, not Heifetz's). Igor Gruppman solos with James Sedares and
the New Zealand Symphony on Koch, Robert McDuffie with Yoel Levi and
Atlanta on Telarc, and Khitruk with Yablonsky leading the Russian
Philharmonic on Naxos. I've heard all of these.
I gave a copy of the Heifetz as a present to my father, an amateur
violinist and drummer (there's a combination!). He immediately wanted
to know who played the violin. "He's as good as Heifetz," he said. "I
should hope so," I replied. But he was just as enthusiastic about the
concerto itself. His three favorite concertos are the Beethoven, the
Brahms, and the Tchaikovsky, probably in that order. I mention this
because it seems to me that, however short (if at all) you believe this
concerto to fall from those three masterpieces, it nevertheless comes
across as taking something from them all: the emotional directness of
the Beethoven, the architectural smarts of the Brahms, the color of the
Tchaikovsky. I consider it one of my favorite concerti. I may respect
and even enjoy Bartok's Second Violin Concerto, but I love the Rozsa,
simply because Rozsa fearlessly goes right to edge of bathos in the
service of moving the listener, but he never steps over.
The concerto follows a conventional general path: an argument-bearing
first movement, a singing second, and a rapid-fire finale. The finale,
fine in itself, seems a bit disconnected from the other two movements,
simply because they emphasize song and the finale emphasizes rhythm.
The concerto throws off plenty of drama, especially in the first movement
where a flowing 3/4 theme contrasts with one in a slightly hectic 6/8.
After the cadenza, placed almost midway through the development, the
themes switch rhythmic milieus. The theme in 3/4 acquires the character
of the 6/8 and vice versa. The emotional wallop and the free, unforced
singing quality of the concerto probably strikes most listeners first,
but Rozsa has put in plenty of headwork as well. The entire first
movement grows out of the opening strain, and gestures from it occur
into the slow second movement as well, much in the manner of Tchaikovsky's
inter-movement variants. One doesn't find inexorable Beethovenian logic
but rather a bunch of half-familiar reminiscences. You're not, in Roland
Wiley's phrase, quite sure whether you've "heard that song before." In
the same way, some of the slow-movement ideas find their way into the
virtuosic finale, this time ginned up and dancing wildly. This score
brilliantly meets expectations of what a concerto "should" be.
The Sinfonia Concertante will probably never score a success as great
as the Violin Concerto, a vehicle that simply exudes "star" quality.
The themes are less lyrical and more angular, less folky more "modern."
Nevertheless, the Sinfonia has a greater edge and a greater concern for
structure, which may arise from trying to balance the two solo parts.
According to Rozsa's autobiography, A Double Life, both Heifetz and
cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, the intended soloists, complained that their
parts weren't prominent enough whenever Rozsa tried to showcase momentarily
one or the other. After the premiere, Rozsa tightened things up. It
turns out that the two stars recorded only the second movement - a theme
and variations, a form the composer favored - in a "chamber" orchestration
they demanded Rozsa provide. For many years, you could get only this
recorded version of the work. Presently, you have a choice of the score
Rozsa intended as well as a DVD of the "chamber" second movement with
The two outer movements set up in roughly the same way - as a clash
between a fierce theme and a song-like one. In general, the themes exhibit
greater complexity than those of the Violin Concerto without sacrificing
much in the way of expression. Consequently, the Sinfonia interests me
more. The double cadenza of the first movement caught me especially.
Frankly, through Rozsa's ingenious and idiomatic use of multi-stopping,
it sounds like a string quartet movement, with ripieno-vs.-concertato
contrasts. The second movement (my favorite, as it happens) is, as I
said before, a theme and variations. The theme sings in a very
folk-Hungarian way, although I believe the tune originates with Rozsa.
Five variations follow the theme, and they range from lyrical and whimsical
to sober and ferocious, ending in pure serenity. Not only has Rozsa
beautifully shaped each variation, he's provided a marvelous overall
rhetorical structure for the movement. After an aggressively Modern
start, the finale more or less settles into a Hungarian rondo for a
headlong sprint to the finish.
In the Violin Concerto, Gruppman and Sedares on Koch do okay. I've
always liked McDuffie, but as good as he is, Yoel Levi lets him down
with a blah, spongy accompaniment. From the point of view of a whole
performance, Khitruk and Yablonsky outshine them both. I still love the
Heifetz, and I kind of miss the gravity of his opening strain, but Khitruk
gives him a run for his money, and her tone is brighter. As far as I
can tell (I don't play a stringed instrument), I find her technically
up to Heifetz and her musicianship superb. As for the Sinfonia Concertante,
I haven't heard the other two recordings available (on ASV and CPO). I
have few hopes for Barry Wordsworth on ASV, however, based on his other
recordings I've listened to. Werner Andreas Albert seems to me at least
capable. However, I do think the Naxos team's account quite fine, and
on a bargain label, yet. This CD may well turn up as one of my favorites
of the year.
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