The reputation of
Henri Vieuxtemps comes to us via the history books as a leading
violinist of the nineteenth century. Yet he took composing seriously
and in turn was taken seriously as such during his lifetime. While
still in his teens he was gaining some fame in respect of both
activities. Schumann heard him play in Leipzig
and wrote a review comparing him to Paganini. Vieuxtemps was then
only 15 and within weeks he was playing in London
where Paganini was already wowing the public. Vieuxtemps
was hugely impressed by the great man’s playing but this proved
to be mutual. Paganini heard Vieuxtemps and declared a great career
ahead. Less than two years later in 1836 he had completed his
first violin concerto (now published as No. 2). When in Paris
in 1841, Berlioz heard the work and publicly wrote that Vieuxtemps
was developing skills as a composer equalling his playing virtuosity.
hindsight this may seem an exaggerated claim, but what impressed
Berlioz and others about Vieuxtemps’ compositions was the attempt
to elevate the violin/orchestra form to something more than just
a vehicle for violinistic display. Paganini
was, of course, the leading exponent
of that sort of thing but Vieuxtemps attempted works of more symphonic
pretension. His ambition probably outstripped his compositional
powers. Nevertheless, several recent recordings are testimony
to a revival of interest in these works. You can hear them for
yourself - see review of three of the concertos here.
presents a genre in which Vieuxtemps
is perhaps more naturally at home. I was not relishing the prospect
of sitting through a string of 15 light salon pieces for violin
and piano lasting nearly ninety minutes; yes, it’s a generous
disc. Once stuck in though, I found myself enjoying each and looking
forward to the next one. The numbers are carefully arranged so
that there is contrast– in mood, tempo, texture and technique
- and this helped carry me along.
turn, there is contrast between the two sets. The Six
Morceaux are the work of a young
man whilst the Voix de Coeur have a certain swan-song character,
being written shortly before the composer’s death. The earlier
pieces are, on average, significantly longer than the later ones.
As so often with composers, maturity carries greater conciseness,
concentration and simplicity. Overall, what brings interest to
these pieces relative to all the violin salon trivia written in
the nineteenth century is greater musical interest, refusal to
rely on violinistic display and a lack
of sentimentality. Some might think the music benefits from a
certain French sophistication.
of the pieces consist of tune and contrasting counter-tune. This
sometimes gives an impression that we are being launched into
a sonata-form movement. The fact that such promise is not fulfilled
is probably no bad thing for I suspect Vieuxtemps’ powers of development
might not easily sustain such an enterprise. However, some pieces
are skilfully wrought. The Tarantelle
in the first set has a second, contrasting lyrical tune but
Vieuxtemps keeps the dance rhythm pounding along across the seam
between the melodies.
second set, Voices of the Heart, has an air of ruminative
melancholy about it. In fact it was the piece, Melancolie, that impressed me most of all. Untypically
it is monothematic; the whole thing being steadily built out of
a four note motto building to a moving climax.
playing these works, many violinists might be tempted into a sentimental
salon style and to try to exaggerate the technical difficulties.
Philippe Koch, ably accompanied by Luc Devos, resists such temptations. I was impressed by the clean
simplicity he brought to the pieces. This certainly helps to focus
on the musical content. Some players could easily wreck the music
with schmaltzy playing; I bet they do. These may not be Paganini-style
display pieces but there are difficulties. For example, one of
Vieuxtemps’ violin fingerprints is a sudden leap into the stratospheric
heights above the stave to strike a note high up on the E string.
Koch hits these with impeccable accuracy and no attempt to show