MENOTTI: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in a (1952). WIPRUD:
Violin Concerto "Katrina".* BARBER: Violin Concerto,
Ittai Shapira (violin); Russian Philharmonic Orchestra/Thomas Sanderling;
*Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Neil Thomson.
Champs Hill Records CHRCD043 TT: 79:00
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Romantic threesome. Champs Hill calls the disc "American Violin Concertos," although
one could argue with the inclusion of Menotti. His Italian birth and
adolescence aside, I've always found his music European in outlook, although
hard-pressed to tell you why. However, the history of these works' reception
interests me more. After their premieres, all sank into relative obscurity.
The Wiprud, after less than a decade, lingers there. The Menotti has
never become familiar, although recordings pop up from time to time.
has achieved repertory status.
My teachers tried to instill in me a sense of music history as a progress
from the simple to the complex. From my listening to music of all periods,
I concluded this was nonsense. To me, Josquin was no less "knotty" than
Webern. Furthermore, I saw instead rises and falls of various styles,
new succeeding the old usually in the name of simplicity or expressiveness.
I studied during the Sixties, when the main polemic fight raged between
the serialists and other avant-garde and the remnants of the
interwar neoclassicists and neo-Romantics. The serialists dismissed the
latter as old-hat, "not
of our time," and played-out. Furthermore, all the intellectual energy
seemed on the radical side. On the other hand, while I loved serialism,
I also loved the old line. I couldn't bring myself to flush Barber, Copland,
Prokofiev, Poulenc, Hindemith, Vaughan Williams, and so on down the sewer
(Stravinsky and Bartók had special dispensation). It seemed to
me then and now, that idiom counts for very little and the piece itself
everything and that complexity per se says nothing about quality.
Both students of the conservative composer Rosario Scalero who gave them
both solid, if traditional technique, Samuel Barber and Gian-Carlo Menotti
made careers up to a point in a mainly-hostile critical environment. When
Barber's opera Antony and Cleopatra flopped at the Met due to a bloated,
crippling, and fundamentally amateur production by Zeffirelli, Barber's
enemies piled on so viciously that they traumatized Barber, slowing his
output to a trickle. Nevertheless, Barber still got regular performances.
Menotti enjoyed popular success as an opera composer through the Sixties.
Critics hated him. They thought his melodies a cheap attempt to seduce
the masses and his libretti (he generally wrote his own) intellectual trash.
It never occurred to anybody that an appealing melody is extremely difficult
to write (otherwise there would be more of them), that operas don't rise
or fall on their libretti (see Verdi, Donizetti, Wagner, and many others),
or that a composer who comes up with wonderful tunes may actually express
his authentic self.
Although best known for his operas, including his mega-hit Amahl and
the Night Visitors, Menotti also wrote instrumental works. I like his ballet
Sebastian and the piano and violin concerti best. Many writers have whaled
on these scores for their somewhat loose grip on symphonic architecture,
but to me these writers miss the point. I admit that Menotti's appeal doesn't
lie in his ability to build a symphonic argument, any more than Grieg's
appeal does, although neither composer foists off shoddy goods, as his
critics allege. Their melodic and harmonic witchery makes strong claims
on the listener. A composer has many ways of making sense, after all, one
of which can be a series of memorable tunes, as opposed to traditional
German motific development.
Menotti's considerable melodic invention runs high in the violin concerto,
from the opening theme. This contains the seeds of the movement's drama,
an uneasy, ambiguous tussle between dark and light, minor and major. The
struggle resolves only at the last chord. The second movement brims with
bittersweet melancholy, while the third blows the clouds away, dancing
in what I think of as a characteristically Italian way, with a North African
section thrown in for variety. As I've implied, the concerto makes sense
mainly in terms of its beauty, rather than its intellect or its psychology.
Theodore Wiprud's Violin Concerto meditates on the devastation on the
Louisiana Gulf Coast from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. I lived through
which unfortunately drove me out of New Orleans, a city I loved, to Austin,
Texas. I lived in New Orleans for over a quarter of a century, and while
I don't claim to be perfectly in tune with its many cultures, I do know
something of them. While I suppose it's always great to be noticed, the
concerto, in three movements -- "Les bons temps," "Acadiana," and "Fly
Away" -- don't particularly evoke either New Orleans or Acadiana,
despite Wiprud's appropriation of the music of both. "Les bons temps," for
example, uses jazz ideas, blues patterns, and even a Mardi Gras vamp, while "Acadiana" takes
a Cajun song for its main theme, with the effect of a button accordion
in its orchestration. And yet, excepting the opening to the last movement,
none of it feels particular to New Orleans or to Louisiana. The jazz
is generic. It's less Bourbon Street and more West Side Story's "Dance
at the Gym." For one thing, the rhythms aren't right. Wiprud remains
a well-meaning musical tourist.
On the other hand -- and I know this is horribly unreasonable -- I wouldn't
have been so irritated had Wiprud not actually specified Katrina. The
music itself has great point and intensity. The first movement jumps
The second is mostly static, as if you're listening for something far
away. The third movement attempts to construct a triumphant ending,,
of the Gospel hymn "I'll Fly Away." Its mainly arpeggiated melody
becomes hallelujahs in the brass-dominated orchestra. The "jazz" is
well done and the Cajun tune, in Wiprud's musical deconstruction, haunting.
As I said, the opening to the third movement, "Fly Away," does
evoke New Orleans and Acadiana for me -- the time of fog at first light,
before shops open and tourists begin to cruise the streets, the stillness
at City Park and in the bayous. I can't predict that Wiprud's concerto
will last, even though it has both craft and many remarkable moments,
but I do wish it the best, despite its subtitle.
I remember a time when Barber's Violin Concerto lay in the shadows, pretty
much as the Korngold concerto once did. I recall only two available recordings
-- one of them Isaac Stern and the New York Philharmonic led by Leonard
Bernstein -- and I never encountered it in concert. Then I heard it in
occasional live performance. Then the number of recordings exploded. ArkivMusic lists at least 45, many with violinists you've heard of. When I heard the
second child prodigy tackle the work in as many seasons (and read of many
more; was it becoming the equivalent of the Mendelssohn?), I considered
the work safely ensconced in the repertory.
I find it interesting to compare the Barber with the Menotti, since both
men not only studied with the same teacher, but knew each other's work
intimately -- indeed, heard various stages of it during composition,
close to daily for decades. Both concerti emphasize gorgeous melody.
the Menotti certainly has more of them than the Barber. However, Barber
argued more tightly, making more of what he had. I find myself finding
similarities between him and Brahms. Many have labeled Barber a neo-Romantic
-- true, in a way, but no less true of Schoenberg. I think Barber had
the best take on his talent when he said that he just "did his thing," although
he never specified what his thing really was. Indeed, it changed over
his career. One would be hard put to think of his violin, cello, and
concertos as the products of the same composer. What he always had, however,
was the gift of creating memorable melody, a lyricism that no one had
heard before, evident even at the pastoral oboe theme of the very early
Overture to The School for Scandal.
In its first two movements, the Violin Concerto contains nothing but memorable
themes, at least three of them miraculously good -- genius. The first movement
sings a bit nostalgically, rising to great passion, as if recalling an
old love. The second is more meditative, more psychically in balance, as
if the regrets of the past have transformed into a kind of wisdom. The
third movement is a devilish perpetuum mobile, with the orchestra throwing
in heavy accents off the beat. It may never have the popularity of the
Tchaikovsky concerto, but virtuosi seem to want to play it, not least because
it usually brings an audience to its feet.
There are two main recordings of the Menotti: Tossy Spivakovsky and the
Boston led by Charles Munch, Ruggiero Ricci and the Pacific Symphony led
by Keith Clark. I haven't heard half of the sixty-odd recordings of the
Barber, although I own more than ten, but the one that stays with me is
Stern and Bernstein, perhaps because it introduced me to the work and I've
known it the longest. There are certainly other fine readings. The Wiprud
has only this recording.
Ittai Shapira and Thomas Sanderling's Menotti moves to the front of the
line. I hear salient details that previously eluded me. They've obviously
thought hard about the work. The Barber -- the same. That they find something
new in the Barber impresses me a lot. Hilary Hahn won me over with a new
general approach to the work. Shapira wins me with his sharp focus on thematic
details. Sanderling gets his Russians to play both clearly and passionately,
and they're beautifully recorded besides.
S.G.S. (November 2013)