MENOTTI: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in a (1952). WIPRUD: Violin Concerto "Katrina".* BARBER: Violin Concerto, op. 34.
Ittai Shapira (violin); Russian Philharmonic Orchestra/Thomas Sanderling; *Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Neil Thomson.
Champs Hill Records CHRCD043 TT: 79:00

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 I'd be 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. The Barber 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 for 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 that storm, 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 with energy. The second is mostly static, as if you're listening for something far away. The third movement attempts to construct a triumphant ending,, using fragments 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. Indeed, 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 piano 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 work 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)