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Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Violin Concerto (ed. Jarman) (1935) [29’11].
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)

Violin Concerto, Op. 15 (1938/9) [35’47].
Daniel Hope (violin)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Paul Watkins.
Rec. Studio 1, BBC Maida Vale, London on August 26th-28th, 2003. DDD
WARNER CLASSICS 2564-60291-2 [64’58]

 

Daniel Hope’s previous recordings on Nimbus have gathered a fair amount of critical praise (http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2001/June01/Hope.htm; http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2000/mar00/shostakovich.htm; http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/jun99/schnittke.htm), so his shift to Warner Classics should be watched with great interest. He could hardly have wanted a more interesting or indeed important coupling than the present one.

Important, musicologically, for the Jarman edition of the Berg Violin Concerto. The work, as is well-known, is effectively a requiem for Manon Gropius, who died at the age of eighteen and who inspired the work’s dedication, ‘Dem Gedenken eines Engels’ (‘to the memory of an angel’).

Jarman’s edition cleans up errors in the full score that, he claims in his informative accompanying notes, Berg would have corrected. For example, the solo line at the beginning of Part II where ‘Berg copied the rhythm wrongly and accidentally omitted two ledger lines and an octave sign’. This is the biggest difference one will hear – as, perhaps, with the recent Kaplan edition of Mahler 2, the differences are often more felt than consciously noted as one listens. It was Hope that premièred this new edition (at the RNCM in Manchester, in July 1995 – the score was published the following year by Universal Edition, Vienna). Hope’s performance certainly speaks of an intimate knowledge of this complex yet infinitely rewarding score and moments like the chorale in Part II have an expressive depth normally reserved for players who have accumulated more years of experience. Hope seems to realise that there is a dark power that seethes under the score until the peace of the chorale finally becomes known (even them it is not an ‘easy’ peace). Take, for example, an arching, typically romantic figure for solo violin at 7’22, a three-note figure that heads towards the heavens before coming back in on itself. Many other players see this as a gesture back in time to the High Romantics and milk it for all it is worth – Hope rather plays it with no let-up while maintaining a more Expressionist intensity. Hope’s technique is fully the equal of the taxing solo part (the cadenza of Part II is gripping).

Of all the concertos in the violin repertoire, this is one that requires most co-operation (an unanimity of vision) between soloist and conductor. Here Hope and Watkins do indeed seem to work as one, an approach that reaches its apex as the chorale emerges entirely naturally, the unforced result of their combined vision. Detail is excellent and always has a point – the horn’s statement of the folk-tune at around 10’30 into Part I is more highlighted than usual, making the trumpet’s statement immediately thereafter seem entirely logical. Warner’s recording helps, as there is little or no muddying of textures, my only quibble being that the level at the very opening of the work is set so low as to be virtually inaudible.

Rhythm in this piece is a vital element. Hope and Watkins realise that this is a multi-layered statement. On one level, they refuse to luxuriate when lesser interpreters might - try the opening of the Allegretto, where the orchestral off-beats are slightly more ‘nudged’ than usual – the music refuses to be comfortable, to relax. On the larger rhythmic scale, the Hauptrhythmus takes on all the emotive weight of a doom-laden Leitmotif (comparisons with Mahler’s Sixth Symphony are not inappropriate).

The care taken by these interpreters is clear at the close of the work, where they create a sense of arrival at the solo violin’s final high note. Here Hope is glassy and penetrating against gorgeous brass chords – this is not a comfortable end by any means, no matter what the chorale might try to say.

Competition is, of course, fierce in this work. Louis Krasner, who commissioned the piece, recorded it famously with Webern conducting – another version with Fritz Busch at the helm has just surfaced as part if the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra’s eight-disc set (my review to follow). Mutter and Perlman in modern times have both left memorable accounts. But Hope should be heard even if those versions are already on the shelves – and he would make an excellent choice as the sole version to own, too.

There are many points of contact between Berg and Britten, most obviously perhaps in the marriage of an expressive surface with a firm, and often complex, background organization (compare, say, the precompositional pitch-organisation of Lulu with the quasi-serial manipulations of Turn of the Screw, for example). So the coupling of these two concertos is entirely apt.

Of course Maxim Vengerov recently recorded the Britten with Rostropovich conducting in an exemplary EMI recording (coupled with the Walton Viola Concerto). Hope has a lot to live up to, and again he acquits himself well. It seems Watkins is at home here, too, for the sleazy, slinky dance-like elements of the first movement make for mesmeric listening. The elusive, bitter-sweet nature of this music is excellently caught. A pity an editing error intrudes (2 minutes in exactly there is a clipped woodwind entry - see footnote). There is great rhythmic attack in the second movement (Hope really digs in here) and the orchestra also seems to be enjoying itself (although it must be admitted that Rostropovich seems to get closer to the heart of the music). Hope’s cadenza includes some terrific high harmonics (the tone is remarkably true and pure).

The Passacaglia finale is the great challenge of this work. The spacious approach taken here means that one is undeniably aware that great things are afoot (emphasised by the way the theme creeps in). The famous ‘bird-song’ effect is well captured by the recording (the whole area around the eight-minute mark). The very ending is interesting – the violin’s attempted disquiet against the orchestra’s striving towards repose works well.

Again, the accompanying booklet notes are from a recognised scholar in the field and are faultless – this time the author in question in Donald Mitchell.

Recommended with enthusiasm. Hope’s youthful fervour coupled with an enquiring mind and a clear affinity for the music of these two composers is an involving mix.

Colin Clarke

Comment from John West

As producer and editor of this recording, I read Colin Clarke's review with considerable interest. His enthusiasm for all aspects of the CD are most welcome. However, I was alerted to go back to my score of the sessions when he says that there is an audible edit at 02'00". I must inform Mr Clarke and all your many readers that there is NO edit at 02'00" or indeed anywhere near that point. Although modern recordings do require a great deal of editing for the ultimate perfection required of CD listening, in this instance your reviewer is mistaken. Perhaps the up-beat triplet quaver in the clarinets is what he is hearing? It is most unlikely that with the soloist, conductor and producer all listening to the final master many times, a mistake like this could be missed and I am glad to be able to "set the record straight"!



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