Tuesday 19 May 2020

Going out of their comfort zone: David Nebel and Kristjan Järvi in violin concertos by Philip Glass and Igor Stravinsky

Glass and Stravinsky Violin Concertos; David Nebel, London Symphony Orchestra, Baltic Sea Philharmonic, Kristjan Jarvi; Sony Classical
Glass and Stravinsky Violin Concertos; David Nebel, London Symphony Orchestra, Baltic Sea Philharmonic, Kristjan Järvi; Sony Classical

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 18 May 2020 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Two disparate composers and two violin concertos, yet each takes the composer out of his comfort zone

At first sight there does not seem much to link Igor Stravinsky's Violin Concerto of 1931 and Philip Glass' Violin Concerto of 1987. But on this new disc from Sony Classical, violinist David Nebel and conductor Kristjan Jarvi pair the two works, the Stravinsky accompanied by Järvi's Baltic Sea Philharmonic Orchestra and the Glass by the London Symphony Orchestra.

In an intriguing note on the booklet, Järvi argues that there are links between the works. Both composers were in their 50s when the works were written, and each work took its composer out of his comfort zone.

Glass' Violin Concerto was the composer's first large-scale orchestral work and his first work for large concert hall, prior to this Glass' music had been chamber scale or for large ensemble. And it isn't just the orchestral forces, this was Glass' first work which addressed traditional Western symphonic form, and Glass' idiosyncratic take in it would lead to his sequence of symphonies, a second violin concerto and three piano concertos.

Glass dedicated the Violin Concerto to his father, saying "His favourite form was the violin concerto, and so I grew up listening to the Mendelssohn, the Paganini, the Brahms concertos. ... So when I decided to write a violin concerto, I wanted to write one that my father would have liked." So in this piece, Glass the Minimalist approaches the Romantic concerto. Violinist Paul Zukofsky, who was a friend and who premiered the piece, played a significant role in the work's genesis as did its first conductor Dennis Russell Davies, who would encourage Glass to write further large scale orchestral works.

1987 was a fascinating year for classical music, whilst in opera John Adams' Nixon in China and Judith Weir's A Night at the Chinese Opera were premiered, in the concert hall the premieres were all of music which preferred complexity to minimalism, including Nicholas Maw's Odyssey, as well the uncategorisable such as John Cage's As Slow as Possible, so Glass' tribute to the Romantic violin concerto tradition, with its tonal structure and lyrical, melodic solo line, must have struck a very different chord indeed.

Stravinsky was similarly outside his comfort zone, writing in a traditional form which he had so far eschewed. In fact, Stravinsky effectively jumped over the Romantic concerto and as with much else in his neo-Classical period was inspired by Baroque music, particularly the concerto grosso with its alternation of large and small groups, even the movement names refer to the Baroque, 'Toccata', 'Aria I', 'Aria II', 'Capriccio'.

Stravinsky's Violin Concerto was commissioned for the young Polish violin virtuoso Samuel Dushkin, like Glass and Zukofsky, Dushkin would become an important mid-wife to Stravinsky's concerto and in fact the two men became friends. Another important figure was the composer Paul Hindemith, who allayed Stravinsky's fears about writing for the violin (Stravinsky was a pianist), with Hindemith suggesting that Stravinsky's very lack of experience writing for the instrument could be turned to his advantage.

The Swiss violinist David Nebel commissioned Gediminas Gelgotas' Violin Concerto [see my interview with Gelgotas] and premiered it in 2018 with Kristjan Järvi and the Baltic Sea Philharmonic Orchestra. Here he joins the orchestra for Stravinsky's Violin Concerto, and in fact this recording was made way back in 2016 in the Great Amber Concert Hall, Liepaja, Latvia.

Järvi takes quite a relaxed (but not lazy) view of both works, helped by Nebel's elegant, sweetly singing tone. Of course, Glass' work is all about textures as the composer keeps fine control of the constantly shifting seascapes. The movements simply have tempo indications, rather than any other marking. Nebel and Järvi ensure that the Glass hovers elegantly between delicate and dramatic, with Järvi keeping the orchestral contributions often transparent. The second movement has a complete change of mood, not so much because the pulse changes as because the rate of change slows down and over regular, slowly repeating figures Nebel produces magical lines of elegant figuration. The third movement returns us to an orchestral throbbing familiar from Glass, which he develops into some excitement, with a coda where Nebel's high violin hovers over the undulating texture. Throughout Nebel plays with poise and elegance, yet he also gives us moments of vivid drama too. The London Symphony Orchestra responds to Järvi's direction with superb control.

The opening 'Toccata' of Stravinsky's concerto sees Nebel and Järvi creating something crisp but not too hard edged from Stravinsky's Neo-Classical writing. There is an elegance to the playing which slightly softens the music, yet captures the wit and the catchiness of the rhythms. In the second movement, textures are really thinned down to create music of remarkable transparency and delicacy, yet with vivid moments in the middle section. The spectacular opening gesture of the third movement, perhaps the concerto's best known moment, punctuates music of elegant refinement from Nebel.  We finish with a highly vivacious account of the final movement which really brings out the work's toe-tapping quality, and makes you understand why Balanchine used the work for a ballet. The Baltic Sea Philharmonic is on great form, and it is lovely to hear them something so refined and fine-grained, rather than the music of vivid theatricality for which the ensemble is known.

For all the intelligence of Järvi's argument there is something slightly puzzling about the disc, the combination of repertoire, the large time gap between the two recordings, the different orchestras. It is a shame that, the Baltic Sea Philharmonic having performed Philip Glass' Violin Concerto No. 2, a way could not have been found to have them playing that work on the disc. Still, there is much to enjoy here, not least the elegant refinement of Nebel's playing, and hearing the Baltic Sea Philharmonic is always welcome.

Philip Glass (born 1937) - Violin Concerto No. 1 (1987)
Igor Stravinsky (1882 - 1971) - Violin Concerto in D major (1931)
David Nebel (violin)
London Symphony Orchestra  [Glass]
Baltic Sea Philharmonic Orchestra [Stravinsky]
Kristjan Jarvi (conductor)
Recorded 25 June 2018, Abbey Road Studio, London [Glass]
10-14 April 2016, The Great Amber Concert Hall, Liepaja, Lithuania [Stravinsky]

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