Britten's Concerto was one of the earliest fruit of his and Pears' sojourn in North America. It was completed in May and June 1939 in Quebec. I owe it to Lewis Foreman that I can share with you the insight that the concerto ought really to be seen as a product of his Spanish Civil War works. It does have an Hispanic edge and at times one can imagine the work sidling, lapels upturned, out of the pages of Havanaise or Symphonie Espagnole. Of course Britten's spin on this is distinctive and of the twentieth century. The prefatory timpani theme taken up by the violin also seems to speak with quiet foreboding of wartime Britten and 'V for Victory'. The vivace's spiky fruitiness takes us into Shostakovich territory. The tragic Passacaglia finale is a clear forebear of the Grimes Passacaglia with insurgents from Berg, Shostakovich and Rawsthorne (had Britten heard the First Rawsthorne Concerto?).
Lydia Mordkovich gives the best performance I have heard of this work. She is neither bloodless nor ordinary. She takes her time but breathes into the frame a warmth the work seems eager to absorb. This piece has actually 'grown' in Mordkovich's hands. I never warmed to the Lubotsky recording preferring the Rodney Friend version on Classics for Pleasure and then shifting allegiance to the EMI Haendel/Walton coupling. I find much Britten hard to take: cleverness is no substitute for emotional sincerity and passion. In this work, as with many of the 1930s and 1940s, Britten's then tenacious grip on the tragic-romantic has not loosened. Before this disc I would have selected the Ida Haendel recording on EMI. Now I would recommend the magnificently recorded Chandos as a first choice and that commendation is reinforced by the coupling.
John Veale studied at Oxford during the mid-forties and with the benefit of a Fellowship spent one year each in the USA with Roger Sessions and Roy Harris. Veale's name may be known to you and if so it is likely to be as composer of the music for the Dirk Bogarde war and jungle film The Purple Plain. He also wrote stock library music for the Crown Film Unit as did Norman del Mar and a host of other lesser and greater lights.
The John Veale work announced the end of a long silence that coincided with the Stalinist winter weathered by tonal composers during the period from the mid 1950s up to the late 1970s. William Glock all but tolled a funeral bell for that generation. Veale has no room for atonalism despite or perhaps because of his time with Roger Sessions (though rather like Elliott Carter Sessions was much more audience-friendly in the 1940s than in later years).
Mordkovich can be relied on to breathe passionate warmth into any concerto she tackles. Certainly she makes the Veale Concerto sound a more three dimensional piece than Manoug Parikian did in his pioneering studio broadcast for the BBC in 1986. I have not compared the performances side by side but my off-air tape of the BBC version does not have the confident reach and spread of the Mordkovich.
The Concerto is hyper-romantic, cracklingly Waltonian (both Barber and Walton are among Veale's favourite composers), emphatic, poignant and in Chandos's care it is given a grown-up balance with little concession to decibel range compression. The Lament - Largo is touchingly done and is most sensitively handled with Mordkovich suppressing vibrato. By all means imagine this music as an approximation of Mahler 5's adagietto and the dreamy Mediterranean sultriness of the Walton violin concerto: simply gorgeous. The finale has the rip and rap of Constant Lambert at his most jazzily dynamic (Rio Grande, Music for Orchestra) and of the finale of the Walton Concerto. Mordkovich (who had to take over from Tasmin Little when Little's pregnancy prevented the project proceeding to time) is constantly amazing in her full-lipped engagement with the music whether in mesmerising mediation or in the full flood, blast and rush of this superb music. Hickox and the BBCSO are spot-on even at the lickety-split pace of the Vivace.
The usual rewardingly thorough and imaginative note by Lewis Foreman provides an ideal backdrop to the music. How much we and the composers owe to Foreman for his longstanding dedication.
As repertoire the Britten may seem dispensable. No doubt funding prevented the ideal which would have been to add Veale's First and/or Second symphonies. I know the First Symphony from a tape sent to me by the composer many years ago. It shows the entirely benevolent influence of Roy Harris (he was Harris's only English pupil) in its wide horizons and life enhancing gusto. There is perhaps a touch of Martinu in there as well. I have also heard Panorama - the colourful portrait of San Francisco. The Clarinet Concerto is available on an ABC disc. I would encourage the composer to complete the Third Symphony in full score. In the best of all possible worlds it would quickly be recorded and issued coupled with the first two symphonies, Demos, Apocalypse, The Song of Radha (soprano and orchestra) and Triune.
Until then this is a gorgeous disc that will have you reassessing the Britten and embracing the Veale concerto. What I now crave is Mordkovich, the BBCSO and Hickox (here decidedly not in any hint of autopilot) in the Violin Concerto by Lionel Sainsbury. Grab the opportunity while you can Chandos.
This is a disc you will want to return to time and again. As for me it is time I looked at Lydia Mordkovich's other Chandos concerto recordings. The present one shows an artist at regal height, with technique aplenty and with a passion that few if any can match.
Paul Conway has also been listening to this disc.
Chandos have once again put us in their debt by releasing
this superbly recorded and impressively committed performance of the
John Veale Violin Concerto. Written in 1984, this deeply personal work
was one of the first fruits of a return to composition after 12 years
of silence. This creative hiatus was caused by lack of performances
and broadcasts thanks to the Glock regime at the BBC. At times one can
hear in the concerto some of the anger and frustration of an artist
stifled by rejection alongside a more personal grief which surfaces
most poignantly in the beautiful central Lament.
The first movement begins portentously with a majestic
orchestral flourish followed by an ascending line from the soloist,
establishing the late Romantic idiom and essentially tragic character
of much of the work. The orchestral introduction is dominated by two
main themes, the first underpinned by an urgent, rocking motif and the
second a lyrical outpouring for strings dominated by a falling triplet.
This introduction recalls John Veale’s facility for scoring films with
its rhetorical, broad brushstrokes that pack an emotional punch. The
rest of the movement concerns the working out of the two main themes
with the soloist acting as the first person singular in the symphonic
narrative. An idiomatic and impressively extended cadenza grows from
and leads back into a scherzando-like passage, more like a ‘hunted’
scherzo than a ‘hunting’ one with its desperate, fugitive character.
After the opening movement’s grand, tragic gestures, the Lament is an
intimate song of personal grief. Harp ostinati unlock a world of great
tenderness and fearless emotional honesty. The delicate harmonics and
rising sobs from the soloist with which this heartbreaking movement
ends arise naturally, unconcerned by empty technical prowess, always
at the service of the music. After this soul bearing, the Finale tries
to assume a brave face with a hearty Waltonian bluffness but memories
of previous themes return to haunt the music. It is the searing intensity
of the first two movements that stays in the memory after the Finale’s
hearty gestures have long faded. The overall impression is of a concerto
on a grand scale distinguished by its tender intimacy, which is sympathetically
written for the solo instrument and communicates directly with its audience.
Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto is one of the few 20th century
examples in the genre with comparable intensity and emotional impact.
The Britten concerto receives a more relaxed reading
than the 1971 Decca recording with Mark Lubotsky and the English Chamber
Orchestra under the composer’s direction (London 417 308-2). The work
benefits from a more spacious view, its considerable complexities rightly
subordinated to a clear narrative line. The reflective conclusion is
most beautifully realised. Orchestra and soloist are clearly in sympathy
with both of these concertos and the chemistry between Mordkovitch and
Hickox produces such wonderful results I hope this partnership will
feature in future recordings. This disc would have been even more desirable
had it been released as an all-Veale CD and included a symphony (ideally
the composer’s second, shamefully still awaiting its premiere). Nonetheless,
this is mere carping in the light of such a winning performance of John
Veale’s impassioned and moving work that engages the emotions without
This disc was also
reviewed by David Wright when it was chosen as a July record of
the Month. You will find session photographs in that review.
See also John
Veale and Britten biographies
SELECT LIST OF WORKS BY JOHN VEALE
Symphony No. 1 (1944)
String Quartet (1952)
Clarinet Concerto (1954)
Kubla Khan (chorus and orchestra) (1959)
Violin Concerto (1984)
Demos Variations (1986)
The Song of Radha (1986)
Apocalypse (chorus and orchestra) (1993)
Triune (oboe, cor anglais and orchestra) (1993)
Symphony No. 3 (1997)