I can think of few tasks more daunting for today's composers than writing a virtuoso concerto for piano, cello, or violin. After all, the list of superb concertos - by Beethoven, Brahms, Berg, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Elgar, Mozart, Dvorak, and more - is intimidating. And yet, composers keep trying. In recent weeks, I have heard new concertos by Robert Starer, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, and Andr'e Previn, for cello, violin, and piano, respectively. And a trio of new compact discs presents the Davies concerto, as well as works by Starer, Henri Dutilleux, and Krzysztof Penderecki.
It is clear that the ideals of the romantic concerto - major musical statements pitting soloist either with or against an orchestra - remain at the core of even the most original of the new works, Dutilleux's violin concerto, ``L'arbre des songes'' (``The Tree of Dreams'').
Dutilleux, however, avoids any attempt to adhere to a standard three-movement framework, and he creates a sound world that is all his own - a searching, ambivalently tonal world in which moods, visions, and sounds are primary.
The Dutilleux concerto is compelling, and it unfolds greater beauties with each successive encounter on the handsome recording with Isaac Stern, who commissioned it, and with Lorin Maazel conducting the Orchestre National de France (CBS Masterworks digital CD MK 42449). Maazel revels in the complexities of the tonal fabric, particularly in the quieter sections. Stern plays with great intensity.
Peter Maxwell Davies
The same CBS Masterworks CD also contains the Maxwell Davies concerto for violin, which Stern performed in May on on the New York Philharmonic's subscription series. That performance was marred by a feeling of just getting by on the part of both soloist and conductor Zubin Mehta.
As heard on the recording, however, with Stern, Previn, and the Royal Philharmonic, it becomes clear the work is a typically brooding bit of Davies, though without the complexity of some of his earlier pieces, which placed something of a barrier before the first-time listener. Despite the composer's recent attempts to write in a more tonal, melodic fashion, this concerto still doesn't yield its secrets easily.
Sir Peter cites the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto as inspiration, but the parallels are only structural and implied, and surely the sunniness of Mendelssohn has nothing to do with the infinitely more turbulent climate of Davies's Orkney Islands home.
On this recording, Previn and the Royal Philharmonic bring shape, mood, drama, and continuity to the accompaniment, and Stern manages his part with his accustomed fervor.
I heard Previn's concerto for piano and orchestra in its New York premi`ere at Avery Fisher Hall several weeks ago, with Vladimir Ashkenazy (for whom the work was written) at the keyboard and the composer conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
The piece is characterized by the tonal, ``tune''-al approach, where levity and perkiness and the flavor of the best '50s Hollywood film scores are the prime elements.
Previn can't seem to get away from the romantic-concerto format, except for a rather bloated andante middle movement, ``Theme and Five Variations.'' And, ironically, it is this format that finally derails the work altogether.
Robert Starer's Cello Concerto, heard in performance with soloist Janos Starker the Y Chamber Orchestra under the baton of Gerard Schwarz, is old fashioned in the best sense of the word. It is suffused with a Hebraic passion, a drama, and an appealing darkness of timbre that handsomely complement the cello. It had a dedicated partisan in cellist Starker, for whom it was written. He tackled the music with that special blend of vast tonal variety and pliant musical phrasing that have made him the most cherishable cellist performing today.
A recorded performance of Starer's Violin Concerto, written for Itzhak Perlman in 1981, shows that the composer was clearly more inspired by the cello as a solo instrument than by the violin. This relatively tame work was recorded by Perlman and the Boston Symphony, led by Seiji Ozawa. The piece has beautiful moments, but it lacks musical continuity. (The partner piece on Angel CD 7 47328 2 is the Violin Concerto by Earl Kim.)
How many of these concertos will have life after their premi`eres is hard to know. Penderecki's Violin Concerto, written for and recorded by Stern in 1976, has been re-recorded with the composer conducting, and Christiane Edinger as soloist.
Stern's earlier recording with the Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Stanislaw Skrowaczewski (CBS Masterworks M 35150) takes 38 minutes to perform. The composer's recording (Thorofon, digital CD, CTH 2017) takes more than 42 minutes. That extra time translates into a less stormy, more introverted ominousness, which seems to suit the composer and his soloist well.
The Thorofon CD captures the Radio Symphony Orchestra of Katowice (Poland) well and must be assumed to represent Penderecki's vision for this storm-ridden creation. The piece has thrilling moments and offers some dazzling pyrotechnics for the soloist (which Miss Edinger is easily up to executing), but neither recording erases the feeling that, once again, a composer has put some effective ideas on paper without really solving the problems of structure.
A final word about the CDs. Banding and indexing are the compact disc's particular gift to the listener who wants to explore a piece, section by section. Of the works recorded, only the Starer and the Maxwell Davies are banded.