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Solo Violinists Pick From 20th-Century Concertos

January 16, 1994|HERBERT GLASS | Herbert Glass is a regular contributor to Calendar.

Today's solo violinists--and not within memory have there been so many proficient ones before the public--are increasingly paying as much attention to 20th-Century concertos as to the handful of Romantic standards: a smart move, and not a risky one, what with the violin concertos of this century being so closely related to their 19th-Century antecedents.

Modern composers, and the violinists seeking out their services, haven't missed the point that the violin is a relatively immutable instrument, or that its players' demands haven't changed much during the centuries. It remains a singing instrument, and the violinist unconcerned with showing off that quality is a rarity. Take as an example the once off-putting Berg Concerto, which is everywhere these days, or the now frequently encountered Stravinsky Concerto, Shostakovich's First and Bartok's Second, which are no longer subscription-concert rarities.

This is not to suggest that we are hearing vast numbers of brand-new concertos. The violin has yet to find its Rostropovich, who enriched not only his own but every cellist's repertory with the great amount of music he commissioned a couple of decades ago.

Stravinsky's chattery, cheeky exercise, however, has little to do with Romanticism. The solo may "sing," but in short-phrased opera buffa terms rather with the violin's traditional bel canto .

Its urchin spirit is captured to perfection by Canadian violinist Chantal Juillet, deftly seconded by the Montreal Symphony (of which she is a former concertmaster) under Charles Dutoit's sharp direction (London 436 8370).

But that's less than a third of the story. The sizable remainder of the disc is devoted to concertos of a different stripe, those of Polish composer Karol Szymanowski, his first from 1921, the second from 1931, the same year as Stravinsky's, which it resembles not at all.

No. 1 is an eerily buzzing, swirling night-music affair that retains traces of Scriabin's mysticism--but energized with a modern rhythmic feel--while No. 2 is darker, longer-lined, more discursive.

Both are compelling, strongly profiled creations, particularly in the hands of Juillet, with her sweetly elegant, seemingly slender tone and acute rhythmic sense. Dutoit and his orchestra are again strong partners in scores that intertwine solo and orchestra rather than making them competitors.

More traditionally Romantic, which is to say backward-looking, 20th-Century concertos are those of Elgar and Walton, the former dating from 1910, the latter, 1939.

They are handsomely presented (on Collins 13382) by the excellent Italian violinist Salvatore Accardo, of whom we haven't heard nearly enough in recent years.

Accardo reaffirms his standing among the thinking virtuosi, kicking the hardly self-propelling lines of Elgar's beefy concerto into motion without slighting its majestic lyricism, while supplying the rhythmic backbone to prevent Walton's schmaltz from turning into a sentimental wallow.

Richard Hickox and the London Symphony provide model, assertive support (Collins 13382).

The Violin Concerto of Benjamin Britten was written in 1938, when his music had not as yet settled into a perceptibly personal style. Strong, often gripping stuff nonetheless, with its faintly Mediterranean turns of phrase the composer ascribed to his reactions to the Spanish Civil War.

The soloist is Lorraine McAslan, about whom the recording's notes tell us nothing (Collins 13012). Whoever she may be, McAslan makes a strong case for an elusive work with her supple, clean and dynamically nuanced playing.

Her collaborators are the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Steuart Bedford, who also provide the sturdy framework for soloist Joanna MacGregor in Britten's rather too insistently chipper Piano Concerto.

The most swooningly lush of all violin concertos may well be Samuel Barber's 1941 delectable concoction, which is given the performance of a lifetime--impetuous, grandly lyrical, propulsive--by the then-18-year-old Anne Akiko Meyers in a 1988 recording only now generally available (RPO Impact 5002).

The Barber is coupled with Meyers' equally confident playing of Bruch's G-minor Concerto, and both are accorded affectionate, shapely backing by the Royal Philharmonic under Christopher Seaman.

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