19th Century

  • Exploring Rare Double Concertos and the Teenage Mendelssohn

     Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in d; Concerto for Violin and Piano
    Solomiya Ivakhiv, violin.  Antonio Pompa-Baldi, piano.
    Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra/Theodore Kuchar
    Brilliant Classics 95733
    Total Time:  66:13
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

    Haydn: Concerto for Violin and Piano in F, Hob. XVIII: 6;
    Hummel: Concerto for Violin and Piano in G Op. 17
    Solomiya Ivakhiv, violin.  Antonio Pompa-Baldi, piano.
    Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra/Theodore Kuchar
    Centaur 3742
    Total Time:  56:22
    Recording:   (*)***/****
    Performance: ****/****

    Over the course of four days in November, 2017, violinist Solomiya Ivakhiv recorded four rarer concerti with Theodore Kuchar and the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra.  The results have turned up on two different labels with the Mendelssohn having been released in 2019 and the other more recently.  Ivakhiv teaches at the University of Connecticut and Longy School of Music at Bard College.  In her own personal studies she worked with Joseph Silverstein among others.  She has traveled widely as a soloist and chamber musician.  Over the past decade she has also served as the Artistic Director of the “Music at the Institute” at the Ukrainian Institute of America in New York City.

    Felix Mendelssohn’s work is featured on the 2019 release.  Here, Ivakhiv has chosen not the overly familiar last concerto (which has more than 200 current versions to choose from in the catalogue), but two early works composed by the 13-year-old composer—the period of the more familiar string symphonies.  First discovered and performed by Yehudi Menuhin in the 1950s, the work has not really gained a foothold in the repertory.  At best it becomes a work that reveals the amazing precociousness of the composer, something not really in doubt.  The 1822 concerto is cast in the traditional three movements with a written out cadenza in the last two movements.  It certainly helps see the way the Mozartean influences now filtered through a budding romantic sensibility.  Mendelssohn melds some of the new French performance techniques of his own teacher, Eduard Reitz, into the solo part.  And so, it is an interesting musicological curiosity.  Ivakhiv’s approach helps highlight the emotional lyricism of the work played with the sort of commitment that is often absent from other readings.  There is also some fine cello writing that adds some emotional breadth in the slow movement.  The same might also be said for the other work on the album, the Concerto for Violin and Piano in d (1823).   Here we see further development of Mendelssohn’s compositional skills even within the six months that separated the works here.  On another level, it is also another run of exploring the same key center.  The opening is a bit more tumultuous and quiet lengthy (running almost 20 minutes on its own).  A bit more Beethoven casts its shadow here coupled with Mozart, and even perhaps a nod to Bach.  It is certainly striking to hear the intriguing modulations and harmonic writing coupled with a growing command and understanding of orchestral writing.  This will certainly make the music intriguing to fans of early Romanticism and the opening solo passages are certainly more impassioned.  It certainly was an ambitious work for the young Mendelssohn and may very well be one of his longer large-scale orchestral works running to 40 minutes—a bit overlong in the long run.  There are also some moments where the orchestra seems to push the tempo and are pulled back slightly.

    The second release here on the Centaur label explores two works of Classical Era composers, though both are somewhat at the cusp of musical shifts.  First is a double concerto by Haydn.  Composed in 1766, the center of the composer’s Sturm and Drang period (though leaning toward a more Rococo sensibility), the work is likely for either harpsichord or organ as its keyboard source, though here a piano is chosen.  Certainly it allows for the two to balance well in the texture.  The work is cast in the traditional three-movement form.  The keyboard still has an almost continuo-like quality at times, integrated into the string texture before it surfaces as the solo instrument.  The central “Largo” is a rather serene moment of beauty which is then capped off by a thrilling “Presto” with a certain modicum of wit.  Echoes of the Baroque still abound in the work with sequences and immediate imitation between the soloists as well as between soloist and orchestra helping to move the music smoothly along.  The feel of the work is more like a church sonata/concerto hybrid.  Pompa-Baldi provides sublime, Mozartean qualities to his performance and certainly bodes well for him as a Mozartean.  Ivakhiv provides a committed performance here as well with some gorgeous playing in the slow movement.  It is here as well where articulation is so wonderfully matched between the soloists.

    Hummel’s double concerto was composed around 1805.  Its first movement features some intriguing dark harmonic shifts in the development section with some exciting cadenza moments.  The central movement is a set of theme and variations that are an excellent example of the composer’s orchestral style and features some wonderful touches throughout the movement.  The finale is a brilliant “Rondo” filled with storms and excitement.  Hummel’s work builds more on Mozart here though the wind writing is a bit more interesting with nice colorful thematic statements.  The solo theme is a lyrical idea that is quite beautiful on violin.  It is also interesting to hear some additional wind work under some of these moments with strings also working to help add a harmonic undercurrent.  This is where Beethoven’s approach is perhaps the louder echo, but it is also a real hallmark of the increased exploration of the orchestra which Hummel is equally adept at, even if the melodic ideas can seem less weighty at times.  Otherwise, there is more an air of Mozart in the elegant music that Hummel crafts here.

    The sound on the Brilliant Classics release is warm and inviting with well-imaged solo delineation.  The orchestra seems to respond a bit more to the Mendelssohn pieces, perhaps out of a sense of awe at the work of a teenager.  The performances are certainly fine enough and committed to presenting the music quite well.  The double concerto is interesting, but quite lengthy with material not quite sustaining itself through, this is offset by the brilliant solo writing though.  Both Ivakhiv and Pompa-Baldi find a great deal of joy to bring out, especially in the opening movement with its almost salon-like lightness.  But even here, it is hard to overcome all those sequences and repeated gestures that are peppered throughout the piece.  The Centaur recording is a tad dry (especially in the Haydn), though that tends to emphasize clarity.  The soloists are well-imaged in the sound picture though.  Rather oddly, there is no information about these pieces in the meager booklet insert which focuses on performer biographies.  The Haydn is a fine performance on modern instruments and will make a nice introduction to these pieces.  His concerti continue to be less prominent but are no less worthy of their time.  The Hummel is not anything that will stay in the ear long, but it is a well-crafted work of its time.

    For those looking for unique repertoire, these albums are certainly worth seeking out.  Both Ivakhiv and Pompa-Baldi provide committed performances throughout both releases.  It is more a matter of personal taste as to which one might prefer over the other in this overall rare traversal of less popular repertoire.


  • A Delightful Double Concerto with an Articulate Tchaikovsky Reading

    Tchaikovky: Symphony No. 4/Leshnoff: Double Concerto
    Michael Rusinek, clarinet.  Nancy Goeres, bassoon.
    Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Manfred Honeck
    Reference FR-738
    Total Time:  63:12
    Recording:   (*)***/****
    Performance: ****/****


    Manfred Honeck pairs a world premiere modern concerto with one of the great classical war horses on this new “Fresh!” live release from Reference Recordings.  As the orchestra’s music director over the past decade, Honeck has continued to raise the orchestra’s profile with often invigorating explorations of classic literature and expansions to the groups repertoire.  Their series of highly-acclaimed releases continues here in amazing Super 5.0 Stereo realization.  The Tchaikovsky was actually recorded in 2016 and is the last of the three later symphonies to appear in the orchestra’s recent releases.

    Tchaikovsky’s later symphonies are among his most-performed and popular works.  The fourth (composed over 1877-1878) in particular holds fascination for its motivic development and intensity that seem to expand upon Beethoven’s own exploration of fate and destiny.  This is the third of the symphonies to make it to disc with Honeck and the PSO.  A quick glance at the overall timings for each of the movements suggests a rather traditional performance with just a slight more time taken in parts of the second movement.  What is most striking about the performance, and which is apparent from the opening bars, is the extreme care that is being taken to the shaping of themes.  One can hear parallel articulations across the sections of the orchestra.  Honeck also makes a lot more out of the sudden shifts in dynamics which can make those moments doubly exciting.  The wind playing throughout the symphony is quite exquisite as a result and that sinuous oboe melody in the second movement moves forward without too much pathos.  This allows some of the yearning to grow more as the movement proceeds.  Brass also are on great display here, especially in the powerful opening and conclusion.  The strings do well, but seem a bit lower in the sound picture, sometimes being overwhelmed by other parts of the orchestra.  This is particularly the case in the opening movement.  The second movement also seems to have some sense of balance adjustment that is not distracting (and might be a result of the 5.0 imaging).  Throughout the bass end seems particularly boom-y at times.  The scherzo really lets the strings shine with the pizzicato playfulness casting itself nicely in the outer sections and a light, trio section.  The finale brings us back to those large monolithic brass blocks of sound and crisp, shots that balance against the lyrical contrasts.  There is solid, controlled energy to get us to the exciting conclusion and Honeck lets the music play for itself without adding any additional, artificial urgency.  This makes the final minutes quite satisfying.  (There is just a brief moment, where it feels like the orchestra was getting a bit over-excited and Honeck manage to pull them back).  That makes those final moments really exciting.  Personal favorites of this symphony include Montreux’s classic Boston set, and Gergiev’s Vienna series (also a live recording).  The latter has a bit more passion (though arguably the bassoon solo in Honeck’s recording in the second movement could not be more emotionally plaintive).  Honeck’s is not a “careful” rendition, but a rather deeply thought out interpretation that draws out Tchaikovsky’s emotional core and creates a consistent performance approach across the orchestra.  In that respect, it is certainly a wonderful performance that is worth exploration and the solo work throughout is really worth the price of admission here.

    The album is paired with a new work by Jonathan Leshnoff (b. 1973) commissioned by the orchestra and premiered in June 2019 (when the recording was made).  A collection of his orchestral music appeared last year on the Naxos label exploring his lyrical orchestral music with its always engaging thematic ideas.  Leshnoff’s music is a link to the great Neo-Romanticists of the 20th Century (Creston, Diamond, Harris).  In this new work, he pairs clarinet with bassoon for a rather fascinating exploration of the double concerto genre.  The work is cast in three movements.  The first movement begins with long, descending string lines that shift into the bassoon’s upper, songful register.  The clarinet then enters to twine itself around this idea with some stunningly beautiful, romantic harmonic backgrounds.  A brief off-kilter waltz follows with a delightful lower bassoon staccato line to open and a nice lyrical clarinet commentary to provide a contrast.  It features a delightful section for solo bassoon accompanied with the orchestra’s bassoons as well.  The final movement brings us a more energetic dash that brings the soloists into more dialogue with the larger orchestra in a more traditional fashion, kicked off with a brass chord before the perpetual motion lets the soloists display their technique.  Leshnoff’s music is always quite engaging and the interaction between the soloists here helps create a lot of delightful interplay.  The accessible harmonic style also invites the listener in with its almost cinematic qualities.  Bassoonist Nancy Goeres and clarinetist Michael Rusinek are quite superb interpreters of the work.  They seem more forward in the sound picture and imaged on either side to create a somewhat realistic spatial feel though sometimes they get shifted more to the center.

    This is an overall an excellent release.  Really, one should pick this up for Leshnoff’s delightful concerto.  The Tchaikovsky is obviously what will grab the attention of the casual listener at first, but what a great way to introduce a new work to a broader audience.  Of course, it is second on the album so it might not get that first listen it might otherwise have.  It is also rather odd that neither soloist is listed anywhere on the cover or really anywhere.  One sort of discovers by leafing through the booklet who they are and there is a little Q and A section there.  Notes for the Tchaikovsky are fine and a nice overview of this more familiar work.  Whether one is attracted to this release for either repertoire, there will be much to enjoy in both cases.