• 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.


  • Violins of Hope


    Violins of Hope
    Niv Ashkenazi, violin. Matthew Graybill, piano.
    Sharon Farber, piano. Tony Campisi, narrator.
    Albany Records TROY 1810
    Total Time: 58:37
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

    In the midst of a pandemic, an album with the title Violins of Hope is certainly a welcome experience.  This beautiful collection of 10 varied works for solo violin is a picture of musical approaches across the 20th Century gathered around the very instrument that is used to perform them.  Soloist Niv Ashkenazi perform here on a restored violin that comes from the Violins of Hope project.  The collection of instruments are restored violins that were owned by Jewish musicians during the Holocaust.  These are then loaned out for use to give these instruments a voice that cannot be silenced by the horrors of this moment in history.  Ashkenazi’s connection to the project has allowed him to have one of these instruments on a more long-term loan which has allowed him to capture a sense of the instrument’s unique voice and qualities.  His choice of bow is also worth noting as it comes from the same workshop of Ammon and Avshalom Weinstein and was constructed by Daniel Schmidt at the Israeli luthier’s business in the 1990s.

    The music for this release encapsulates works written during the lifetime of this particular instrument which is believed to have been constructed in Eastern Europe, or Germany, between 1900-29.  The repertoire is carefully chosen to explore the richness of this particular instrument featuring some familiar works, but some wonderful discoveries as well.

    Robert Dauber’s Serenade (1942) is a wonderful opener for the album that demonstrates Ashkenazi’s impeccable range of interpretation and tone.  There are some simply stunning moments in the upper register of the instrument coupled with a moving, engaging performance.  In fact, as the album continues, there is a real emotional core that Ashkenazi finds for these pieces.  There is that somber quality which is explored in “Nigun” from Bloch’s Baal Shem suite (1923) followed by a beautiful performance of John William’s theme from Schindler’s List (1993).  Julius Chajes’ melancholy The Chassid (1939) is an interesting work as well exploring Jewish musical gestures.  Some other brief excerpts here include the delightful “Dance of the Rebbitzen” from George Perlman’s Suite hebraique (1929), Paul Ben-Haim’s beautiful “Berceuse sfaradite”, and a “Kaddish” from Ravel’s Deux melodies hebraiques (1914, arranged by Lucien Garban in 1924).  Each of these explores Jewish melodic ideas within their unique modernist/impressionist styles.  Sharon Farber’s Bestimming: Triumph (2014, arr. 2019) is taken from her cello concerto.  It is a truly moving work that utilizes a narrated text about a Holocaust survivor who managed to save more than 150 children as part of the Dutch Resistance.  It is a powerful work with a grand, triumphant conclusion.

    Two multi-movement works are provided as a mid-point and conclusion to the album.  First is Szymon Laks’ Troi pieces de concert (1935) includes a modernist set of variations, a romance, and virtuosic moto perpetual motion finale.  Laks managed to survive Auschwitz though much of his earlier work was destroyed or lost.  This particular work existed only in a cello version but was reconstructed for violin in 2010.  Finally, the album concludes with Ben-Haim’s Three Songs Without Words (1945).  Here is a bit of a nutshell summary of the exploration of most of these composers in period modernism and somewhat expanded harmony and open intervals that grace music from this period.

    The notes accompanying this album help navigate these unfamiliar works well.  But it is the playing itself which will invite further listening.  This is a very well-chosen program of accessible (mostly) early 20th Century music that is filled with references to Hebraic melodies, but also plumbs the depths of the soul as one reflects upon the century.  Ashkenazi’s performances invite the listener into these works and captures the lyrical beauty of these pieces.  He allows the instrument to sing with moments that can sense the deep sadness and those which lift the spirits and move from melancholy to hope and triumph.  The program itself helps the listener move through these emotions as well as we can both enjoy what each piece has done, followed often by a more reflective musical work that offers us to consider what was lost.  He is served very well by his accompanist Matthew Graybil who provides excellent support to these interpretations.  Albany’s sound, captured in the wonderful Great Hall at California State University, Northridge, also is an asset with excellent sound imaging.

    Violins of Hope is an important release for those exploring both the repertoire explored here as well as being introduced to a great, thoughtful performer with an instrument that will not be silenced.  Highly recommended!