ARENSKY: Violin Concerto in A minor; TANEYEV: Suite de concert – Ilya Gringolts, violin/ BBC Scottish Sym. Orch./ Ilan Volkov, conductor – Hyperion

ARENSKY: Violin Concerto in A minor; TANEYEV: Suite de concert – Ilya Gringolts, violin/ BBC Scottish Sym. Orch./ Ilan Volkov, conductor – Hyperion CDA67642, 60:18 **** [Distr. by Harmonia mundi]:

Hyperion’s illustrious series showcasing the Romantic Violin Concerto continues with the juxtaposition of two Russian works, each written by a composer with a close connection to Tchaikovsky and each one dedicated – as Tchaikovsky’s own violin concerto had been – to the masterful violinist and teacher Leopold Auer (1845-1930). Auer was one of the principal violin virtuosi in Imperial Russia for nearly 50 years. Like Joseph Joachim, who served as Brahm’s technical advisor in all matters related to the violin, Russian composers often turned to Auer for technical advice.

The first of the two works on this disc is the Violin Concerto in A minor Op. 54, the only violin concerto composed by Anton Arensky (1861-1906), appointed Professor of Music at the Moscow Conservatory while only 21 years of age. Students in the harmony class that he taught included Rachmaninoff and Scriabin, both of whom absorbed some of Arensky’s stylistic attributes. Arensky in turn had developed a strong affinity with Tchaikovsky’s expressive lyricism. There is an expansive lushness in Arensky’s music, the source of which is probably his close friendship with the great Russian romantic whom he attempted to emulate. Arensky was also a gifted melodist like Tchaikovsky, a trait that was definitely passed on to both Rachmaninoff and Scriabin. This created a stylistic continuity in Russian music – one of elegiac beauty and deeply expressive soulfulness – that persisted through the 20th century and that can even be found in the music of that supreme modernist Igor Stravinsky.

This relatively short concerto is rather restrained, even withdrawn in its musical polemics. Although Arensky uses the musical equivalent of verbal ellipsis in a Harold Pinter Play, he still manages to convey all of the latent tragic beauty and melancholy turmoil that roils the Romantic Russian artistic soul. It is a lovely work beautifully performed by violinist Ilya Gringolts and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ilan Volkov. Some may find this work not quite flashy enough for a concerto. Nevertheless it is a refined work, without a hint of vulgarity, that will reward repeated listening.

The Suite de concert Op. 28 composed in 1908-09 by Sergei Taneyev (1856-1915) is an eclectic composition that stylistically straddles the 19th and 20th centuries. Although deeply indebted to Tchaikovsky’s lyrical romanticism, the music flashes an intermittent undercurrent of emotional uneasiness that suggests a more modernist sensibility. Taneyev was a master of Renaissance counterpoint and this work is structured something like a Baroque suite with several dance movements. The middle two movements are a Marchen (tale) that is like a miniature tone poem and a Theme and Variations that contains its own dance movements. With its strong neoclassical overtones the Suite de concert predates Stravinsky’s premier efforts in the new style by more than a decade.

The piece is beautifully played by Gringolts and the orchestra. They emphasize the work’s relatively complex polyphony and the Suite makes an interesting contrast to the Arensky concerto. This disc is a strong and convincing entry in Hyperion’s ongoing Romantic Violin Concerto series. It is a pleasure to discover works that are so expertly retrieved from their undeserved musical oblivion.

Hyperion’s sound is warm and clear though slightly recessed, suggesting that their engineers opted for somewhat more distant miking. Emphasis on the midrange makes it easy to appreciate Taneyev’s contrapuntal mastery while heightening the violin’s unique vocalic expressiveness.  These works would surely have benefited from the immediacy and spatial presence that is offered by surround sound. Unfortunately, Hyperion seems to have discontinued their SACD line of recordings. Perhaps that decision will be revisited someday.

— Mike Birman

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