BUSONI: Violin Concerto in D Major; Benedictus from Beethoven’s Missa solomnis; R. STRAUSS: Violin Concerto in D Minor – Tanja Becker-Bender, violin/ BBC Scottish Sym. Orch./ Garry Walker – Hyperion

BUSONI: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35a; Benedictus from Beethoven’s Missa solomnis; R. STRAUSS: Violin Concerto in D Minor, Op. 8 – Tanja Becker-Bender, violin/ BBC Scottish Sym. Orch./ Garry Walker – Hyperion CDA68044, 63:03 (8/12/14) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

Volume 16 of the ongoing series “The Romantic Violin Concerto” offers two late-Romantic efforts, neither of which has completely entered the main stream of active repertory. For years, anyone seeking to hear the 1897 Violin Concerto in D Major by Ferruccio Busoni sought out recorded performances by Joseph Szigeti, Adolf Busch, and Siegfried Borries. Ulf Hoelscher (with Rudolf Kempe) made a classic rendition of the Richard Strauss Violin Concerto of 1882, a showpiece work for Bavarian Court Orchestra concertmaster Benno Walter that bears the same relationship to the violin that the D Minor Burleske has to the piano.

Despite its highly derivative construction, the Busoni Concerto generates considerable power in its foreshortened first movement Allegro moderato, which moves through a series of lyrical – though “unmelodious” – episodes to a martial mode that culminates in a huge, scalar crescendo for full orchestra. Like Szigeti, Becker-Bender sports a wiry but pungent tonal quality from her 1719 “Maurer van Veen” Stradivarius. The sweet middle movement Quasi andante almost quotes the G Minor Bruch Concerto verbatim while harmonizing violin and oboe in the manner of Brahms. The ending of the middle movement recaps the opening theme of the Concerto. The most original movement would be the finale, Allegro impetuoso, a thrusting motion in an Italian carnival atmosphere. Becker-Bender provides the music with a definite sizzle, fluent and aggressive. The orchestral part under Garry Walker remains clear, resonant, and gratifying in its lushly brisk attacks.

A selling point for this Hyperion disc, the debut recording of Busoni’s 1916 transcription of the Beethoven Benedictus from his 1819 Missa solemnis, an attempt to realize a sacred beam of light in the midst of a work of both religious and secular piety. The violin solo by Becker-Bender now moves as a seamless arioso over punctuations from winds, pizzicato strings, brass, and tympani that substitute for the vocal responsories. 

Critic Eduard Hanslick commented in 1882 that the Richard Strauss Violin Concerto in D Minor “betrays a great talent,” which even on a good day reads ambiguously. The bravura first movement Allegro proves broad and processional, but its development seems cosmetic, attempting to be both declamatory and lyrical in the manner of a Northern Paganini. Becker-Bender’s sterling tone and plastic lyricism certainly sell the work’s surface charm. True to his birthright, Strauss provides some impressive work for the French horn, his father’s chosen instrument. The general tenor of the music, however, seems to borrow from another relatively neglected Romantic violin concerto effort – likely unconsciously, given the obscurity of the work at the time – that of Robert Schumann, in the same key. The Lento ma non troppo second movement can claim its share of melodic talent for Strauss, and the Rondo: Prestissimo last movement cavorts in a post-Mendelssohn fashion that fuses dazzle with gentle nostalgia. While Becker-Bender may note convince us of the intrinsic value the piece has for posterity, she may have won a few appreciative listeners.

The recording (27-28 June 2013) by David Hinitt in Glasgow’s City Halls, Candleriggs, captures every nuance we could require.

—Gary Lemco

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