violin concerto is not the form which immediately springs
to mind when you consider mid-twentieth century American
classical music. But both William Schuman’s Violin Concerto
and Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade date from the 1950s,
being composed within a few years of each other. A key
influential work, in this respect, is probably the Barber
Violin Concerto. This was composed in the late 1930s
but not premiered until 1941, following which it rapidly
entered the standard repertoire.
Violin Concerto was originally written in 1947 for Samuel
Dushkin and the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Koussevitzky,
but had to wait until 1950 for its premiere. By that
time Charles Munch had taken over from Koussevitzky and
Isaac Stern played the solo part. The work comes between
and could be considered a symphony for violin and orchestra.
As originally written it consisted of the traditional
three movements, but Schuman’s revisions in 1959 brought
the work to its present form: just two substantial movements.
Though the work was popular at its 1950 premiere, Schuman
did not like the three movement format. In particular
he was dissatisfied with the middle Andantino
In the end he dropped this and created two substantial,
independent but interdependent symphonic movements.
terms of its material the concerto is an unabashed Romantic
one, though Schuman does not write with his heart on
his sleeve quite as much as Barber. Where the work does
not quite fit the Romantic mould is that the main ethos
of the piece is dialogue and symphonic development. It
lacks the key 19th
century concerto element
of struggle between orchestra and soloist, though the
soloist is ultimately engulfed by the orchestra at the
writing is lyrical, but it is a rather tough lyricism.
You don’t actually come out humming any of the tunes.
As such the soloist needs fire and force to bring the
performance off. Both soloist and orchestra are perfectly
at home in this repertoire and give a sterling account
of the work, bringing off its seriousness as well as
Schuman’s quirkier touches. For instance try the section
where the soloist is accompanied by three trombones.
But it is a big bravura work and whilst McDuffie gives
a fine, capable account of the solo part, he does not
scorch the air-waves. His is a capable and musical account.
He always sounds on top of the part, but never burns
as fiercely as he could.
is a shame, because the work has been given a fine recording
which illuminates all of the Schuman’s orchestral writing.
Perhaps the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra do not quite
have the work in their blood the way the Boston Symphony
Orchestra do, but theirs is a very fine account.
you just want the Schuman then I would probably go for
Paul Zukofsky’s account with Michael Tilson Thomas and
the Boston Symphony Orchestra on DG. This si coupled
with Piston’s 2nd
Symphony and Ruggles’ Sun-treader
Zukofsky is not quite as polished as McDuffie, but he
certainly knows how to scorch. Unfortunately this disc
is unavailable at the moment.
coupling is Bernstein’s 1954 Serenade
strings, harp and percussion. This violin concerto in
all but name is based on Plato’s Symposium
each of the five movements illustrates one of the dialogues
in praise of love. In retrospect the work was something
of a notable point in terms of Bernstein’s development
as it covered elements of his own, conflicted emotional
personality. We can see now how Plato’s work could have
resonance for the composer, approaching middle age, and
still trying to balance the elements of his life; not
only the musical ones, but the different sides of his
result, in musical, terms is rather an unshowy, almost
understated work, very much a serenade. It has been something
of a sleeper in Bernstein’s compositional output, gradually
coming to have a greater importance than it seemed to
have when Isaac Stern premiered it.
it is a work which I find admirable rather than loveable
and McDuffie has not managed to convince me otherwise.
Again he is well-mannered and not a little cool. Perhaps
if he had played in the sort of highly coloured manner
that I wished for in the Schuman, McDuffie might have
convinced me a little more. In the Gramophone review
of Hilary Hahn’s 1999 recording of the work the reviewer
describes the work as ‘loveable’, so not everyone agrees
is rather omnivorous in his stylistic influences and
the movement range from neo-Bergian lyricism to full-on
Mahlerian moments. The most incongruous, though, is the
jazzy, blues-influenced closing dance which seems to
stand out; so much so that you wonder what underlying
thesis Bernstein had in mind.
recordings date from 1989 and this is a re-issue of a
disc originally issued that year. It now reappears in
EMI’s American Classics
and the St. Louis Symphony are poised and lyrical, capable
and musical, without quite setting me afire. In both
works they are capably conducted by Leonard Slatkin who
contributes to a pair of beautifully recorded well modulated
see also review by Rob Barnett