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British Violin Concertos
Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1937) [35:15]
George DYSON (1883-1964)
Violin Concerto (1941) [43:14]
Arthur BLISS (1891-1975)
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1955) [41:48]
John VEALE (1922-2006)
Violin Concerto (1984) [35:38]
Lydia Mordkovitch (violin)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Bryden Thomson (Bax); City of London Sinfonia (Dyson); BBC National Orchestra of Wales (Bliss); BBC Symphony Orchestra (Veale)/Richard Hickox
rec. 1991-2000; St. Jude’s Church, Central Square, London; Brangwyn Hall, Swansea,; Blackheath Halls, London
CHANDOS CHAN 241-53 [78:39 + 77:36]

The Russian violinist Lydia Mordkovitch left an impressive legacy of over sixty recordings for Chandos. A pupil and later assistant of David Oistrakh no less, she made the UK her home from 1980 until her death in 2014 aged seventy. In an effort to celebrate the life and illustrious career of one of their founding artists, the label has recently released several volumes of her work under the title ‘Lydia Mordkovitch – Tribute’. David Barker has reviewed a release in the series featuring the Bruch Concertos 2 and 3. I find her a strongly communicative player, with a commanding technique and formidable musical presence. I’ve picked up several of her recordings along the way, favourites include the Bach Sonatas and Partitas (Chandos CHAN8835), Ysaye Solo Sonatas (Chandos CHAN8599), Grieg Sonatas (Chandos CHAN9184) and a monumental account of the Moeran Concerto.

Bax completed his Violin Concerto in 1938. Originally intended for Heifetz, the violinist didn’t find it challenging enough. It was left to Eda Kersey to première it in November 1943 with the BBC SO under Sir Henry Wood. Sadly, Kersey was to die the following year at the young age of only forty. Luckily there is a performance of her playing the Concerto with the BBC SO under Sir Adrian Boult, issued on Dutton (CDLX 7111). Cast in three movements, the first comprises three sections marked Overture, Ballade and Scherzo. The opening mood is restless and energetic. Unlike the symphonies, the Concerto is lightly scored. There’s plenty of scope for the soloist to shine, despite Heifetz’s reservations. The exquisite central Adagio, which feels like the emotional heart of the concerto is ravishingly played by Mordkovitch, who achieves a rich, warm and radiant tone, sensitively phrasing the line. A vigorous, upbeat finale ends the work in triumph.

The Dyson Concerto is a new discovery for me. Having listened to it several times, I am surprised that the composer is so undervalued. The only work of his I’m familiar with is The Canterbury Pilgrims. The Concerto was finished in 1941 and championed by the English violinist Albert Sammons, who gave the first performance in February 1942 with Boult and the BBC SO. A lengthy four movement work, it has symphonic aspirations. The opening movement is serious and has grandeur and nobility; I could hear hints of Vaughan Williams. The violin enters tentatively and pursues the narrative in an elegiac and brooding manner. A jaunty jig-like Scherzo follows. The slow movement won me over immediately with its tender, ardent simplicity. An extrovert and vigorous finale ends the work. Mordkovitch brings warmth, virtuosity and finesse to the proceedings, and is ably supported by Hickox, whose inspirational conducting never lets the music sag.

After the death of Sir Arnold Bax in 1953, Sir Arthur Bliss was appointed Master of the Queen's Music, and shortly after received a commission from the BBC for a concerto. The Violin Concerto absorbed him for the next two years, and it was dedicated to Alfredo Campoli (1906-1991). Almost tailor-made for the ‘bel canto’ quality for which the Italian-born British violinist was renowned, Bliss drew on Campoli’s technical advice, and sometimes criticism, in the composing of this imposing forty minute structure. I can personally vouch for the violinist’s beauty of tone, as I was lucky enough to hear him in concert on one occasion playing the Tchaikovsky Concerto. Campoli premièred the Bliss Concerto in May 1955 at the RFH in London with the BBCSO under Sir Malcolm Sargent. The following November it was recorded in mono by Decca with the LPO and the composer at the helm. A later performance in stereo exists from 16 December 1968 again under the direction of Bliss, but this time with the BBCSO (Carlton BBC Radio Classics). Apart from these two recordings, this 2006 offering from Mordkovitch completes the total on disc. Sadly, it has never gained a foothold in the mainstream repertoire — a pity in my view.

It’s a lengthy romantic edifice, with two larger movements framing a shorter nine minute fleet-of-foot, scherzo-like movement. My only criticism of the work is that its final movement, incorporating a challenging solo cadenza, rather outstays its welcome. Mordkovitch’s robust, muscular tone is ideal for this work, and technically she leaves nothing to chance. Her performance is at times both virtuosically dazzling and intensely lyrical. Bliss incorporated some sparkling spiccato passages in the second movement, no doubt to showcase another ‘wonderful command’ of Campoli’s technique.

The highlight of this set for me is the admirable Violin Concerto by John Veale - again a work I’ve never heard before. Veale spent time learning the ropes with Egon Wellesz, Roger Sessions and Roy Harris, and benefited from the encouragement of William Walton, whose influence can be detected. He wrote film scores in the early part of his career. Composing in the tonal idiom he went out of vogue for a while in the sixties when William Glock’s avant-garde regime took over at the BBC, forcing many of Veale’s ilk into the wilderness. Fortunately, he later gained the recognition he deserved. The Violin Concerto was completed in 1984 and was premièred by Erich Gruenberg and the BBC Philharmonic. This recording was made in 2001.

A large-scale work, the Concerto explores a range of emotions from anger and despair to hope and joy. It also exhibits some expert orchestral writing. The middle movement is immediately appealing with its elegiac love music tinged with wistfulness and regret. Perhaps the composer was lamenting the death of his four year old daughter in 1951. Mordkovich maintains the ebb and flow of the narrative throughout, and Hickox and the BBCSO prove sympathetic collaborators.

The Chandos sound is superb in all four concertos, with an ideal balance between soloist and orchestra struck in every case. Annotations by Lewis Foreman and Andrew Burn set the context admirably. For those willing to veer off the beaten track and explore, there are many rewards to be had here.

Stephen Greenbank

 

 




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