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Lewis NIELSON (b.1950)
Violin Concerto (1989, rev. 1999)*
Four movements for violin and harpsichord (2001) Anagram (Fantasia No 2) for violin and string orchestra (1999)
Levon Ambartsumian (violin)
Wassily Dolinsky (harpsichord)
Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio/Mikhail Kukushkhin*
ARCO Chamber Orchestra/Lewis Nielson
Rec. Great Hall of Moscow Conservatory, October 1999 (Violin Concerto); Malyi Hall of Moscow Conservatory, October 2001 (Four movements); Hodgson Hall, University of Georgia, April 2001 (Anagram) DDD CENTAUR CRC 2665 [53:31]

Lewis Nielson is an American composer who studied in London as well as in the USA, and is currently based at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio. In his notes for the booklet, he states that the music on this disc “gives a reasonable account of my general compositional interests”. Rather than adopting a particular style, he is “much more concerned with the more abstract elements of fluid development of musical material”. Indeed, it is quite hard to detect specific influences in this music. Charles Ives might perhaps be one but this is not to suggest that there is an overt American flavour here. Nielson has apparently received support from the Delius Foundation and perhaps this is the kind of music Delius might have written if he had been born a century later. There could even be a distant kinship with his near namesake, Carl from Denmark. A lack of clear stylistic anchors leads to a very different experience from Nielson’s music by comparison with another contemporary US-based composer, Leonardo Balada (who is now receiving his due on Naxos).

The main work here is the two movement Violin Concerto which was written in 1989 for Thomas Joiner. It was revised in 1999 for the present performer, Russian-born Levon Ambartsumian, whom Nielson describes as “one of the most gifted musicians I expect ever to meet”. The first movement is rhapsodic and, after an extended opening melody lays down motifs for the second movement, to which it is linked by a cadenza (the principal section of which was revised). At the close of the work there is a return to the opening theme. The overall effect is atmospheric with a predominance of slow tempi and few opportunities for virtuosity. Ambartsumian plays the work with feeling and consistently beautiful intonation.

The other two works on the disc are perhaps more striking. Four movements for violin and harpsichord was dedicated to the present performers and makes for interesting listening. Each movement is concise, lasting between two and four minutes, but a lot of material is contained within them. The composer relates each movement to the work of a particular artist: the first, “Exercise” a bucolic landscape after the manner of Watteau; the second, “Lament” informed by Goya’s May the Second; the third “Dialogue” related to the ambiguity of Dali and the finale “Folly” inspired by Bruegel’s “Triumph of Death”, as depicted by a waltz-like frenzy. This is one of the more interesting 21st century works that I have yet heard.

The final piece, Anagram is subtitled ‘Fantasia No. 2’ and was written for Levon Ambartsumian. It lasts for almost as long as the Violin Concerto. Both contrasts and demands on the violinist here seem greater than in the Concerto. Throughout there is a clear feeling of progression towards a goal (presumably the resolution of the anagram). Enigmatically, the composer tells us only that the title “derives in part from the musical realization of the appropriate letters of his [Ambartsumian’s] and my name”, leaving me puzzled but perhaps you will be able to work it out!

The first two works were recorded in Moscow; Anagram in Georgia (USA). Sound quality is more than acceptable throughout with the violin well-balanced with both orchestras and the harpsichord. I am not aware that there is competition but all the performances can be regarded as definitive. Listeners interested in contemporary violin music should certainly give this disc a hearing.

Patrick C Waller

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