Monday, 3 October 2016

Fabulous performances of violin concertos form two giants of American music, Roy Harris and John Adams on a new release from Signum Classics featuring Tamsin Waley-Cohen with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Litton

A new release from Signum Classics  brings together two violin concertos from two great names in American music, Roy Harris and John Adams played by Tamsin Waley-Cohen  with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Litton

Roy Harris (1898-1979) was born in Lincoln County, Oklahoma and studied with Arthur Farwell (1872-1952) in Los Angeles and Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) in Paris. His large output consists mainly of orchestral and choral music including sixteen symphonies, of which his third is considered to be one of the finest written by an American. Of his concertos his Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1949) was commissioned by the Cleveland Orchestra for its concertmaster, Joseph Gringold and scheduled for a premiere under the conductor, George Szell. However, it only received its first performance in 1984 with Gregory Fulkerson and the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra who later recorded it. It is in a single movement but in four sections.

Strangely enough, given the coupling on this disc, I feel sure I could detect minimalist touches in the opening bars of Section One. Andrew Litton and the BBC Symphony Orchestra certainly seem to point some up in the repeated orchestral phrases. When soloist Tamsin Waley-Cohen enters we are in Harris’ very American world with a fine melody that soloist and orchestra develop. This soloist brings a wonderful tone very much adding a passion and emotional edge to Harris’ creation. Later there is a lovely little moment for woodwind and violin as they weave around each other, beautifully done and freely and naturally flowing through Harris’ faster passages before leaping straight into the rhythmic and lively theme of Section Two, full of vintage Harris. When the soloist enters she brings a lovely texture, blending wonderfully with the orchestral sonorities. There is a very fine pizzicato passage, full of buoyancy and life with Waley-Cohen handling Harris’ rhythmic variations brilliantly. She finds some lovely little textures and colours. There is a terrific rapport between soloist and orchestra who always maintain a terrific sense of rhythmic buoyancy.

Waley-Cohen weaves a lovely line over the orchestral sonorities of Section Three where she brings the most exquisite harmonies and textures against a particularly fine orchestral accompaniment.  This soloist extracts the most exquisite tones from her instrument, adding so many colours and sonorities whilst weaving lovely phrases with the orchestra. There is a brief cadenza that flows naturally out of what has gone before. As Waley-Cohen runs into Section Four she releases an outpouring of invention over a broader orchestral accompaniment, through some spacious orchestral passages underlined by rhythmic features with some fine orchestral playing before the coda is suddenly reached.

It is good to have this attractive concerto in such a wonderful performance.

John Adams (b. 1947) began composing relatively early and by the age of fourteen had heard his works performed. He studied at Harvard University where he became the conductor for the Bach Society Orchestra and later taught for twelve years at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.  It was in San Francisco that he heard the minimalist works of Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Terry Riley.  Although he considered that minimalism was an important development in music he felt that it had limits. He went on to develop his own post-minimalism style that brought greater dynamic contrasts and a more fluid and layered sound.

Now established as one of the most important composers living today, his compositions range across opera, choral and vocal music, orchestral music, chamber music, piano music and film scores, as well as tape and electronic works.

His Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1992-93) was written in response to a joint commission form the Minnesota Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra and New York City Ballet and explores aspects of interconnection and impermanence within the context of the traditional three movement concerto form.

Tamsin Waley-Cohen brings a lovely theme to Movement 1 over a continually rising and falling orchestral motif. The music is freely tonal with some very fine harmonies as soloist and orchestra weave the theme forward, the solo violin slowly adding little rhythmic figurations. The music increases in tempo and complexity as it progresses with Waley-Cohen weaving some very fine passages with lovely textures and developing colours. She is superbly accompanied by Litton and the BBCSO. Midway there is a passage where a repeated, rather minimalist orchestral line is overlaid with a constantly evolving solo part, developing with growing intensity through bars of greater virtuosity. The cadenza brings a quieter, gentler working out of the material where the soloist teases out some gorgeous textures and tones. When the orchestra returns it brings an exquisite luminescence as it leads into the hushed coda.

The music leads straight into Movement II. Chaconne: Body through which the dream flows where a bell chimes before the orchestra brings mysterious deep orchestral lines over which delicate translucent orchestral sounds are heard. Out of this emerges the soloist who, along with the orchestra creates the most lovely sounds. Here Adams reveals fully what a fine ear he has for sonorities and colours, truly remarkable, particularly in the hands of these performers. This soloist wends her way over some wonderful subtly shifting orchestral harmonies to which she adds subtle dissonances against the orchestra. Part way there is a lovely section where the soloist and woodwind weave the theme and later passages of luminescent beauty, the instruments of the orchestra bubbling around the soloist. The music moves through the most lovely distinctive harmonies before the chimes re-appear and a magical coda is reached.

Both soloist and orchestra with woodblock rhythmic taps open Movement III. Toccare as they hurtle forward in this vibrant finale with a repeated, yet subtly developing theme. There is some tremendous playing from Waley-Cohen in these fast moving, insistent passages with impressive accuracy from both soloist and orchestra, a real rapport. The music moves quickly with an unstoppable force to a tremendous conclusion.

This is a fabulous performance of a very fine concerto.  

These two concertos sit remarkably well together. The recording is excellent as are the booklet notes

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