Ross EDWARDS (b.1943)
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra Maninyas (1988) [25:38]
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Violin Concerto in D minor Op.47 (1904) [31:42]
Adele Anthony (violin)
Adelaide Symphony Orchestra/Arvo Volmer
rec. Adelaide Town Hall, Adelaide, Australia, 10-12 June 2009
CANARY CLASSICS CC09 [57:20]
The Sibelius concerto has proved to be one of the most enduringly popular violin concertos. It combines a winning mixture of crowd-pleasing pyrotechnics and achingly beautiful lyricism. No surprise therefore that it has been recorded by just about every soloist of note in the last eighty years. This begs the question; if our shelves are groaning under the weight of near-definitive versions why do we need another? The presumption with the disc under consideration will be the novelty of the coupling – the contemporary but highly-approachable concerto by the Australian composer Ross Edwards – gives this CD its necessary ‘USP’. Very good indeed though the Edwards is, the exceptional quality here – and I did not really expect this – is the performance of the Sibelius. Violinist Adele Anthony will be known to collectors through her Naxos recording of the Glass Violin Concerto or her playing of (literal) second fiddle to husband Gil Shaham’s performances of Sarasate (again on Canary) and Pärt on Deutsche Grammophon. There is also a recording of her Nielsen on Centaur which I have not heard. None of the above prepared me for the phenomenal quality of her playing of the Sibelius. Remember, this is a ferociously hard concerto – Sibelius makes enormous demands of his soloist with extended passages of double-stopping and knuckle-cracking complexity. I can honestly say I have never heard the work played before with such accuracy and apparent ease. Usually the odd octave sounds a fraction off or the tone hardens during the trickiest bars but not here. Until now I would have used Leonidas Kavakos’s remarkable version on BIS - famously coupled with the premiere recording of the original version of the same concerto - as the touchstone for technical prowess. Next to Anthony he sounds overly muscular and aggressive compared to her svelte and seductive fluency. Had I been more aware of Ms Anthony’s career this would/should not have come as such a surprise. This is the concerto she played to win the ABC Instrumental and Vocal competition aged just 13. So this is a work she has had ‘in her pocket’ for over 25 years and doesn’t it show. As far as the performance of the solo part is concerned this would be my number one choice. Not that she lacks the ability to dig into her violin but her playing is fiery where Kavakos is ferocious. Where Kavakos does win is the quality of his orchestral support. From memory I think that BIS disc was the debut - or certainly an early disc - on that label of Osmo Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra. Returning to their performance – caught in typically spectacular BIS sound – it is easy to understand the impact they made. This is not a question of one performance being better than another; in the presence of two such strikingly fine interpretations such a choice would be both fatuous and disrespectful to the ‘losing’ performance. It is just that I happen to respond more to Vänskä’s rugged elemental approach in Sibelius. The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra play – and are recorded – very well but it is all just a fraction cool and under-characterised with the brass especially lacking the thrilling bite and weight of their Finnish counterparts. In the concert hall of my mind I’d love to hear the Finns accompanying Anthony.
Interestingly for a programme which appears to have been recorded in a sequence of three days at the same location there are two different production teams named. And listening to the disc it is clear that two very different recording styles have been chosen for the contrasting works. These choices are appropriate and well-made. Thomas Grubb who produced and edited the Sibelius has gone for a more traditional concert-hall sound with the orchestra and soloist set further back into a warm hall acoustic. Kevin Roper’s choice for the Edwards is a more closely analytical sound which works very well for the complexity of the less overtly romantic score. This is my first encounter with the music of Ross Edwards and the immediate impression is of a composer capable of handling large-scale orchestral forms confidently and effectively. The concerto is titled ‘Maninyas’ which turns out to be an invented word seeking a fusion of indigenous Australian culture combining rhythmic vitality with the use of chant-like modal melodies. In concept if not style it made me think of the famous Villa-Lobos ‘Bachianas-Brasileiras’ where that composer returned frequently to a title as an umbrella term for music which embodied elements of both his own country’s culture and external ‘classical’ influence. Maninyas is a name first coined by Edwards in the early 1980s for a pair of songs for counter-tenor and then a series of compositions simply titled Maninya I, Maninya II and so on. Maninya I is the aforementioned songs for counter-tenor and cello whilst II, III and IV are for different chamber ensembles. V returns to the vocal element – again counter-tenor but this time with piano. I mention this because in the his liner-note Edwards explains that his original violin concerto “was a dud…. [so] I made a practical resolve to draw a large part of the [new] concerto out of two earlier pieces Maninya I (1981) and Maninya V (1986) both of which have the characteristics of rhythmic chant based on sound patterns from the natural world”. To my ear, not knowing the source works, there is a vocal quality to much of the solo writing that harks back to the sung originals. So whilst a piece of a contemporary nature it has an instantly appealing lyrical quality. Rhythm alternates between fluid irregularity and nagging ostinati. Anthony proves as agile and alert here as in the Sibelius. Edwards’ writing of the solo part is surprisingly traditional in the sense that he utilises fairly standard virtuosic vocabulary of double-stopping - often favouring rather lush chords - juxtaposed against almost Waltonesque passage-work bristling with jagged cross-rhythms and thrown accents. The Adelaide Symphony cope comfortably and indeed the lithe and lean style of the music suits them rather better than the Sibelius requiring as it does a coolly objective approach. Edwards’ orchestra is very traditional in scale and make-up – triple wind but with a fourth clarinet apparently, modest brass, just two percussion and a harp. Only the presence of an orchestral piano is at all out of the ordinary. A highlight of the first movement is the closing gently reflective solo violin meditation which leads effectively without a break into the Intermezzo quasi Cadenza. Again Anthony’s superbly poised yet passionate playing is an utter delight. Musically this is on traditional ground. Edwards is clearly not interested in exploring ‘extended violin technique’. Personally, I find this something of a relief in comparison to music determined to be different simply for the sake of it. Listen to the transition into the second movement proper – Maninyas Chorale [track 3] which lies at the heart of the work in every sense. Over a slow moving string chorale the solo violin sings a passionate song – the ritualistic modal quality imparts a truly beautiful timeless character that only the finest music possesses. The work finishes with another energetic dance movement to match the opening. Again following traditional concerto convention the solo part is an extended virtuosic dance although applied here to Edwards’ own choice of musical vocabulary. Some of the material from the first movement is revisited. Perhaps because it comes after the emotional and compositional highpoint of the central Chorale this final section engaged me less than what had come before. The major formal surprise is that the dance stops abruptly and the violinist is left ruminating in a second gentler cadenza recalling the concerto’s central panel. The work fades out into contemplative darkness. Interestingly, it’s a darkness out of which the Sibelius concerto emerges rather effectively.
The packaging of the CD with its ethnic design, the balance of the liner-note skewed in favour of the Edwards’ Concerto and the Australian source of orchestra makes it clear that the Edwards is considered the flagship here with the Sibelius a not inconsiderable ‘filler’. Given the latter’s signature-work status for Anthony I imagine it was a logical and easy choice to complete the disc. I note from Ross Edwards’ website that this is not his concerto’s first recording. The other performance has the authority of being given by the work’s dedicatees (and includes other Edwards works) but seems to be only available as a high-priced second-hand disc. Edwards has been well-served by Australian labels and performers. Of his cycle of five symphonies written between 1991 and 2005 all but two have been recorded by Australian orchestras. It is clear that his music deserves to be heard more widely throughout the world. The liner makes a rather weak attempt at linkage by titling the note “A Sense of Place”. Clearly this is applicable to the Maninyas concerto and equally clearly many of Sibelius’ other works are inextricably linked to his country and the time of their composition. However, his violin concerto is one of his least nationalistic and most purely abstract orchestral works. Purchasers buying the disc for either work should be delighted with their ‘main’ choice but equally pleased with the remaining music. Although this seems to be selling as a full price CD – in which I format I listened to it - I see that the Canary Classics website offers a FLAC download at a very competitive $8.99. One entertaining typo – Sibelius’ death is recorded as 1975, which leaves you wondering if he would have managed an Eighth Symphony if given an additional twenty-eight years.
On the strength of her magnificent reading of the Sibelius Ms Anthony is a name I will actively seek out in the future. Likewise, I will be very interested to hear more works by Edwards so all in all this is a very rewarding disc. Two final reasons to add Ms Anthony to the pantheon of great violinists: cricket is her favourite game and the work she would most like to play more is the Walton concerto.
A very rewarding disc.