Thursday 24 November 2016

Roy Harris & John Adams: The American violin concerto

Roy Harris, John Adams - Violin Concertos - Tamsin Waley-Cohen - Signum
John Adams, Roy Harris Violin Concertos; Tamsin Waley-Cohen, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Litton; Signum Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Nov 22 2016
Star rating: 3.5

Two 20th century American violin concertos, giving a very particular view of the genre

This disc from Tamsin Waley-Cohen, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Andrew Litton on Signum Classics pairs two 20th century American violin concertos, the one relatively unknown and the other less so, the 1949 Concerto for Violin and Orchestra by Roy Harris (1898-1979) and the 1993 Concerto for Violin and Orchestra by John Adams (born 1947) Listening to the two pieces, you wonder whether there is such as genre as the American violin concerto as both have elements in common.

Harris is an example of the remarkable upward mobility of musicians in the USA in the late 19th and early 20th century (a similar thing applied in the UK, particularly with singers). So Harris's music mixes the American pioneer sound with influences from his studies in Paris with Nadia Boulanger (studies undertaken at the suggestion of Aaron Copland). The violin concerto was written in 1949 as a commission from the Cleveland Orchestra. The orchestral part proved so full of errors that the first performance was shelved, and rather oddly the work was allowed to languish until premiered by Gregory Fulkerson and the North Carolina Symphony in 1984.

Written in a single movement, the work is in four sections and the most remarkable thing about it is the lyrical profusion of the solo violin writing with a sort of endless melody. After a Copland-esque opening the first section has a violin-led texture, the finely spun line getting progressively more elaborate. The second section opens with an orchestral gesture which reminded me of the music of Malcolm Arnold, a comparison which cropped p a few times when I was listening to the piece. This section moves from thoughtful to the more dramatic, in a way which might be thought of as either full of lyrical profusion or simply prolix. The third section moves from the lyrical to the florid, with a cadenza-esque passage to the final section where the florid violin part indulges in dialogue with the more open air orchestral passages.

I rather found the work outstayed its welcome, being fascinating rather than lovable. The violin writing is not always showy but it is a really huge part which Tamsin Waley-Cohen encompasses with a lyrical intensity, her elegance of line counting for much in the way the music spins out.

You can understand why Tamsin Waley-Cohen paired the Harris and the Adams concertos. Adams concerto was written in 1993 for the Minnesota Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra and the New York City Ballet, it was premiered in 1994 by violinist Jorja Fleezaniz and the Minnesota Orchestra, with Peter Martins' ballet to the work being given by New York City Ballet in 1995.
In Adams' 1993 work, like the Harris, there is a sense of endless melody from the violin and little in the way of struggle (or even dialogue) with the orchestra. There is nothing remotely resembling minimalism or process music in Adams' first movement, just an endless violin line entwining with orchestral lines, gradually picking up tempo and developing underlying rhythmic structures. The second movement is a chaconne, with Adams providing an evocative, rather magical texture against which the violin unfolds. The final movement is a complete change of mood, high energy, fast and furious, creating a complete bravura close to the work.

Again, Tamsin Waley-Cohen provides a superb account of the violin solo, encompassing both the lyrical meditation and the high energy hi-jinks. In both, the concertos she is well supported by Andrew Litton and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

The disc gives a fascinating insight into a very particular view of the violin concerto.

Roy Harris (1898-1979) - Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1949) [28.08]
John Adams (born 1949) - Concerto for Violin & Orchestra (1993) [34.11]
Tamsin Waley-Cohen (violin)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Andrew Litton (conductor)
Recorded 4-6 April 2016, Studio 1, BBC Maida Vale
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