KORNGOLD: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35; BRITTEN: Violin Concerto, Op. 15 – Vilde Frang, violin/ Frankfurt Radio Symphony/ James Gaffgan – Warner Classics 08225646009213, 58:12 (2/26/17) ****:
Violinist Frang fulfills her wish to bring two of her favorite concertos together, reflections of the “divisive” era of the 1930s.
Youthful but brilliantly gifted violin virtuoso Vilde Frang here approaches two concertos from the late 1930s that bear contrasting aesthetics: the 1937-1939 Korngold Concerto derives from a popular, Hollywood mythos, while that of Benjamin Britten (1936-1937) assumes a more “abstract” quality to fulfill a commission for violinist Antonio Brosa. Each composer had fled Europe at the time, for both personal and political reasons, and each composer sought respite in music in his own way.
Erich Korngold (1897-1957) conceived 23 scores for Hollywood movies, and he drew music from three of them, entrusting to Jascha Heifetz the responsibility of a first performance on 15 February 11947 in St. Louis. Along with its punishing vocal tessitura in high registers, the D Major Concerto sizzles with motion and orchestral colors, aided in this respect by xylophone, harp, celesta, and vibraphone. Just as his movie scores like The Adventures of Robin Hood exhibit dash and (Viennese) elan and charm, so too the Concerto rather sails in adventurous lyricism and naughty passing dissonances, only to fall securely into a thoroughly Classical pattern. The G Major Romance: Andante (from the Fredric March classic Anthony Adverse) provides a perfect vehicle for Frang as it had for Heifetz, an exalted, lyric aria in which Korngold’s naturally operatic bent has its full range of expression. The first movement Moderato mobile – from the motion pictures Another Dawn and Juarez – offers a blatantly Romantic sonic image, not at all indicative of the kind of post-Schoenberg aesthetics of which Korngold could quite capable. The last movement, based on the quick jig for The Prince and the Pauper – Allegro assai vivace – calls for the most versatile of violin techniques and flourishes. Frang negotiates the dazzling, even devilish, coloratura in piercing, virtuoso style, aided by a ringing and effusive orchestra part from the Frankfurt Radio Symphony. The last pages, as produced by Udo Wuestendorfer (30 June-2 July and 28 August 2015), resonate with spectacular color effects that should happily test your audio equipment.
Benjamin Britten’s Concerto also falls into the key of D, but rather in a modal style. Britten’s legacy of movie scores may prove to be a source for this moody work, but its aesthetic feels like a cross between lyrical Korngold and Dmitri Shostakovich, with his own penchant for elegies. Essentially, Britten felt his Concerto to be a descendant of Alban Berg’s Concerto, a mournful requiem for the troubled times, especially given Britten’s pacifist sympathies and his pain over a divided Spain. The opening series of drumbeats casts a Spanish rhythm, and the exotic colors—a product of the Frank Bridge influence—the orchestra violins, percussion, and basses toss out more Iberian impulses while the violin solo soars in melancholy song. An accompanied cadenza has cymbals and tympani over and under the solo, quite eerie. The Vivace scherzo demands some bravura effects, double stops, some of those in harmonics. The violin solo seems to have become a percussive instrument, the sonic aura somewhat reminiscent of the First Concerto (in D Major) of Serge Prokofiev and its rasping, incisive bow strokes. The Cadenza section of the scherzo recalls themes from movement one that no less anticipate the final movement. The last movement takes on the shape of an archaic procession—a Passacaglia: Andante lento—that begins in prayer and proceeds to a scream. The music urges the solo to the tonic D Major for resolution, but resting on a sustained trill, Frang resists, a grueling tension that invokes pleasure and pain, as Britten intended.