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Samuel COLERIDGE-TAYLOR (1875-1912) Violin Concerto in G minor Op. 80 (1911) [31:25] *
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904) Violin Concerto in A minor Op. 53 (1882) [31:02]
Philippe Graffin, violin
Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra/Michael Hankinson
* world premiere recording
rec. studio, 19, 23 Oct 2003 (Coleridge-Taylor), live at dress rehearsal and concert 17 Oct 2003 (Dvořák), Linder Auditorium, University of the Witwatersrand Education Campus, Johannesburg, South Africa. DDD
AVIE AV0044 [62:43]

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The curious, the knowledgeable music enthusiast and those with cult fascinations find their cherished and multiply-copied radio broadcast tapes and CDRs being pensioned off with every month that passes. Those air-checks can often be relegated to the loft provided you are prepared to fork out for the latest release and don’t mind possibly duplicating your cherished CD or CDs of the Dvořák concerto. Mind you performance values on the commercial release may not always match up to your cherished favourites. Here there is no question of the new disc disappointing.

At long last Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Violin Concerto has been commercially recorded ... and issued. I make the pedantic separation because there are strong rumours that this work was recorded for Lyrita Recorded Edition by the Scots violinist Lorraine McAslan circa 1995. As with so much from Lyrita it has not been issued ... one day, Oh Lord! One day! I seem to recall that the Coleridge-Taylor was to have been coupled with Julius Harrison’s Rhapsody for violin and orchestra, Bredon Hill; rather a short CD so perhaps Lyrita had something else up their corporate sleeve as well.

This is a half-hour work, rather like the Dvořák. In style and melodic-contour it has much in common with the Dvořák by which I suspect it was strongly influenced. Other works are occasionally touched on, for example the major Mendelssohn and Bruch works and the Glazunov also. The Tchaikovsky is hinted at in the staircase ascender and descender figures for woodwind playing obbligato in the finale as well as in the stuttering brass fanfares in the first movement which transiently recall Capriccio Italien. There is also a dash of Elgar in there as well. It is a highly attractive work with a powerfully memorable store of whistleable tunes both sweetly sung and lively. It is said that the Concerto was influenced by Negro spirituals but if that is the case their presence is no more obvious than the American sources in Dvořák’s New World Symphony. The work stands happily on its own two feet.

Coleridge-Taylor was, not surprisingly, dubbed ‘the colored Dvořák’ by Maud Powell, the work’s first soloist who premiered the concerto on 4 June 1912 at the Berkshire Festival in the USA. It had its UK premiere at the Proms in London on 8 October 1912 and was performed at Bournemouth in February 1913. It dropped out of the repertoire for many years until Sergiu Schwartz revived it. There has also been at least one 1990s performance with the Harvard Orchestra where the soloist was someone now better known to us as a conductor featured on the Naxos American Classics series, John McLaughlin Williams. There was a time when JMW seemed to be carving a place for himself as the American champion of neglected Brits. He also gave what was probably the US premiere of the Bax Violin Concerto in 1990 with the Boston Pro Arte Orchestra conducted by Geoffrey Rink.

Lorraine McAslan also broadcast the work for the BBC on 9 June 1995 with the Ulster Orchestra conducted by Jan Latham-Koenig. Getting out my off-air tapes of this broadcast and of the other one by Sergiu Schwartz with Brian Wright and the Guildhall School Symphony Orchestra some comparison can be made. Schwartz (broadcast on 27 February 1981) is sweet-toned but the pacing moves forward with leaden boots and tired muscles. While this tempo has the advantage of allowing Schwartz to mine the work’s lyrical strata without distraction (to great advantage in the Andante) there is no doubting the extra ‘lift’ and mercurial poetry in Graffin and Hankinson’s approach. Schwartz has difficulty keeping his instrument in precise tune; not a problem with Graffin. If anything McAslan is even more self-absorbed and reflective than Schwartz especially in the first two movements. The Ulster Orchestra is, not surprisingly, much better than the Guildhall group and their horns make wonderful air-lofted use of the accompanimental figures in the first movement. The Ulstermen are riper than the Johannesburg Orchestra but there’s not much in it. Graffin however is surer-footed and more polished and impassioned than Schwartz and McAslan so I can happily give a full recommendation to the Avie version. Do try the hearts and flowers embrace of the middle movement - generous-hearted writing and playing, brimming with sentiment and yet not mawkish.

The Dvořák has competition and it is fairly numerous and often prestigious. There was a time when it was a fairly rare customer but now there are at least a dozen versions in the catalogue. While hardly state of the art in sound my preference is for Josef Suk’s version on Supraphon coupled with Suk’s Fantasy. Graffin lays in to the Dvořák with a will from the very start. This is a work of folksy sweetness without any feeling of contrivance or poverty of expression. Graffin is as much at ease here as he is on his Hyperion CD of the three Saint-Saëns violin concertos; it’s just that here he has the advantage of better tunes.

The excellent notes are by Jessica Duchen and Philippe Graffin in English, French and German.

Make no mistake the Coleridge-Taylor is a vivacious and captivating work which I guarantee that you will come to love. It is aptly harnessed with the Dvořák and if you know the Dvořák work and love it then you will have a good feeling for what to expect from the Coleridge-Taylor without it being in any way a carbon copy.

Rob Barnett

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