I have been having something of a mini-festival of violin concerto reviews recently. Familiar players and works jostling for attention with the less familiar. Just when you thought that Hyperion had the market cornered for "Unknown Romantic Violin Concertos" along comes this disc with a pair of really
The driving force in every respect behind this project is the violin soloist Aleksandra Maslovaric. She has founded the label and website responsible for this release, ensured that performance materials were available for the musicians to play, co-produced the recording and then promoted the resulting disc … as well as playing the solo parts. Any one of these roles is usually enough so all praise to the indefatigable Ms Maslovaric for her commitment to the cause.
None of which would be of much merit if the cause itself were of little interest. In fact the music of Dutch composer Elisabeth Kuyper is well worth a hearing. As ever in such circumstances a little biography might help. Kuyper was born into a merchant's family in Amsterdam in 1877. Her musical career was marked by a series of significant achievements. At nineteen she went to Berlin to attend the Hochschule für Musik. By 1901 she was the first woman admitted to study composition in the Meisterschule für Komposition then led by Max Bruch — this would be some four years after Vaughan Williams had also studied with Bruch. In 1905 she became the first woman to win the Mendelssohn Prize and by 1908 was the first woman appointed as professor to the same famous school. From that point on she seems to have been a leading light in the promotion of women in music founding choirs and orchestras in Berlin, New York and London. With so much energy devoted to education and the promotion of women in the Arts her compositional catalogue appears rather small. The works on this disc have been published - you can follow the concerto on the IMSLP site in its violin and piano reduction - and there is a further group of unpublished works which, given the quality of the music on display here, tantalisingly includes a symphony and an opera.
I am wary of too grandiose claims being made for 'lost' composers; all the more so if they are deemed to have suffered degrees of repression or suppression. Whatever the injustices of the time in which they lived and the trials they underwent in comparison to other contemporaries we can only judge their music today by objective qualitative standards - nothing is gained by special pleading. The reality is that these are works of considerable skill, easy appeal and some individuality. Is the concerto any 'better' than say the recently revived York Bowen E minor
? Probably not but neither does it deserve to be consigned to any historico/musical dustbin. I have to say I prefer the concerto as a work considerably to the Mlynarski and Zarzycki concertante works which I reviewed on Hyperion
's most recent Violin Concerto Series release.
If Bowen's E Minor Concerto model was Tchaikovsky than Kuyper's B minor - an unusual Violin Concerto key but the same as Elgar's premiered just two years after Kuyper's 1908 first performance - breathes the same air as her mentor Max Bruch with a smattering of Dvořák. Best not to make too many comparisons between the Elgar and the Kuyper, mind. Bruch was an arch-conservative so no real surprise he should look so approvingly on Kuyper's composition. It really is a very appealing work indeed - attractive melodies, well laid out orchestration effectively wrought and a traditional three movement form with its structure clear and logical to the point of predictability. The very opening has a dramatic Bohemian feel with a rather lovely second subject - perhaps a little short-breathed; just when you are hoping for the melody's second phrase to expand upon the first it breaks off. The whole concerto is well proportioned and deftly constructed. Not
a lost masterpiece but one that could happily takes its place in a concert programme substituting for the ubiquitous Bruch or Dvořák concertos.
The Concerto is placed second on the disc after Kuyper's very impressive Op.1 - a Violin Sonata. In four movements, this work sensibly aspires to a less grand scale - indeed there is more than a hint of a Suite rather than true Sonata with a Salon-esque Bolero
placed second and a wistfully lyrical Andante
third. This latter movement gives a good idea of Kuyper's lyrical gift - my instinct is its played too fast here with the implicit intensity of the music under achieved. The opening Allegro ma non troppo
is the most overtly Brahmsian music on the disc but it has to be said that for an Op.1 Kuyper does not overly suffer in the comparison.
So far, all well and good. Unfortunately, Ms Maslovaric's dedication to the cause of this music she clearly cares for overlooks the fact that as a violinist, by International standards, her playing is simply not good enough. At first listen I was rather disconcerted by the all-too-evident technical limitations. Violinists will tell you that the bow arm is more important than the left hand that fingers the notes. Here can be heard bumps, breaks and unevenesses in the middle of even quite simple lyrical lines. These blemishes ultimately detract from the pleasure taken in hearing this impressive music. Ms Maslovaric's intonation is mainly acceptable although there is evident tension in her left arm too which is audible as uneven trills and vibrato and the fudging of passage-work. Sadly, on repeated listenings, I found myself on the look-out more for the technical issues and listening less to the music itself. For me, it really was a distraction on that kind of level. The opening of the Sonata's 3rd movement [track 3] or the soloist's entry in the 1st movement of the concerto [track 5] encapsulate these shortcomings. Others may be able to listen with less discomfort and enjoy the music more.
Certainly the recordings from a technical point of view are pretty good. Pianist Tamara Rumiantsev is afforded a good piano sound and she plays well - although I sense some holding back and a degree of measure in her playing that undersells some of the music. The concerto is accompanied by the Brno Philharmonic conducted by Mikel Toms. Again they make a perfectly good fist of unfamiliar music no doubt being recorded as it was rehearsed. A shame an orchestral violinist mis-reads a pizzicato chord as arco during the soloist's first entry - sloppy production not to have tidied that up. Elsewhere, there are similar little slips that indicate uncertainties for the players. With the IMSLP piano reduction to hand there are curious variations in articulations and chord lengths. They might be editorial or simple differences between the two versions of the score. Again the dynamic range is rather modest although the actual sound of the orchestra is very attractive and the acoustic of the recording venue is appealing. Too often choices of tempo and expression seem circumscribed by the (in)ability to play the part. The Concerto's Finale - a prestissimo
- is played at the most laboured tempo I have ever heard applied to that marking. To complete the standard survey of any new disc; the liner - something slightly homespun about its design and layout is in English and German with brief but useful introductions to both the composer and the specific works. Playing time is a modest fifty-four and a half minutes - in an ideal world the extra twenty minutes devoted to another Kuyper work would have been lovely - I assume budgets were tight.
Just to be sure I was not being overly judgemental I chose pretty much at random the first 'unknown' concerto in my collection which came to hand to cleanse my ears of such compromised playing. This was where the Bowen link, rather aptly as it happened, sprang to mind. In purely executional terms the team there of Lorraine McAslan and the BBC Concert Orchestra under Vernon Handley, is in a different league. If only
that kind of technical address, musical fire and production values were applied to this music we would have a certain winner. It genuinely grieves me to criticise so bluntly any player who had invested as much time and effort as here but the results are that flawed. This is not in any sense absurdly poor but in a world of casually accepted excellence it comes as something of a shock to hear no more than modest adequacy.
A second recording of this rewarding music is urgently required.