Concerto No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra (1989-1994) [23:00]
Concerto No. 2 for Violin and Orchestra [14:13]
Kafantaris Violin Concerto No. 3 [13:33]
Simos Papanas, Espen Lilleslåtten, Yova Milanov (violin)
Louisiana Sinfonietta/Dinos Constantinides, LSU Philharmonia/Carlos Riazuelo
rec. Louisiana State University, USA, 2012/13

Dinos Constantinides is a Greek-American composer whose music is new to me. So perhaps a little biographical detail first. He trained as a violinist at the Athens Conservatory and the Juilliard School - his website lists Dorothy Delay, Ivan Galamian, and Josef Gingold as teachers. He also gained a Master's Degree in Music from Indiana University and his Ph.D. in Composition from Michigan State University. As a teacher, his work has been focused on the School of Music at Louisiana State University where he is Boyd Professor and Coordinator of Composition. No surprise that all the recordings here are sourced from performances at Louisiana State and feature artists and ensembles involved with the orchestra. The disc is released by Magni Publications which appears to be solely devoted to the promotion of Constantinides' work. A quick check on the catalogue reveals that the Concerto No.1 has been previously released in this performance on the Centaur label - who seem to have supported the composer with several discs (review ~ review). His compositional catalogue stretches to over 265 compositions but the Magni Publications website makes no mention - as far as I can see - of the 2nd or 3rd concertos or his 6th Symphony which is mentioned elsewhere. Indeed most of the information provided with the disc is frustratingly under-informative so it is hard to do the composer justice in the broader sense.

The three concertos presented here are interesting and diverse in style and influence. Number One seems to be a collation of separate earlier pieces. In three sections named Patterns I, Idyll and Patterns II the style is what might broadly be called neo-Romantic. Interesting to read on the Magni Publications website that other of the composer's earlier music was written in a free atonal style. This most certainly is not. Constantinides' practical knowledge as a violinist is apparent in the virtuosic and effective writing for the solo violinist - performed here with great skill and considerable passion by Simos Papanas. Constantinides writes a solo line that soars over the orchestra using a distinctly post-modern harmonic vocabulary but with a romantic sensibility. The other aspect which distinctly colours both the 1st and 3rd concertos is what might be termed a folkloristic influence. In the same way a composer such as Khatchaturian uses elements of Armenian music in many of his works without explicitly quoting folk-music so Constantinides mines elements that seem unmistakably Greek. Papanas is especially good at emphasising this quality much to the music's benefit. The Magni website describes the 1st Concerto thus; "Patterns I and Patterns II are counterparts of each other and are based upon contrasting musical ideas organised within a tight framework. Free slow sections alternate with fast rhythmic ones leading to frenzied endings. Idyll is based on a three note figure which first appears at the beginning of the solo violin. This figure is transformed throguhout the composition into several rhythmic and melodic ideas and in various tonal centres." Worth pointing out that all three concertos are compact compositions - No.1 is the longest. Even though the three movements seem to have had separate origins it works well as a work. Constantinides seems to have a preference for abrupt endings - certainly on first listen the conclusion of sections sound almost curt. Likewise given the compactness of form Constantinides does not waste time or material with extended introductions or expositions. In every case the musical argument of the work starts from the very first notes.

Concerto No.2 is a curious work - described in the liner as "a fun piece denoting the thoughts of the violin and the orchestra". I am really not sure what that means except to say that this is a very consciously neo-classical work. Indeed the third movement tranquil is a real charmer even as it teeters on the edge of pastiche. The orchestra is much smaller - both Nos.1 and 3 use full brass and extended percussion. Although I have not seen a score and there is no information online No.2 sounds as if it is scored for a Classical orchestra of double wind and two horns with no other brass or percussion. There is the spirit of a latter-day Mozartean Serenade. The soloist here is Espen Lilleslåtten - a former concertmaster of the Bergen Philharmonic and now Associate Professor of violin at Louisiana State University. As recorded - and more about the recording quality to come - he is a fine player but without quite the sweetness of tone of Papanas. He is not helped by the fact that his violin goes slightly flat to the pitch of the orchestra. The Louisiana Sinfonietta are more exposed by the angular contrapuntal writing - not badly so, but the result is a performance of less finesse and light wit that I think this music seeks to convey. This all sounds just rather too effortful.

The 3rd concerto is different again. Where the 1st had 3 movements and the 2nd 4, the 3rd - by a fraction the shortest of them all - is in one compressed thirteen and a half minute movement albeit in four distinct sections. I genuinely enjoyed all three works but this one impressed me most. Constantinides names it "Kafantaris Violin Concerto No.3". Kafantaris is after violinist-pedagogue Stelios Kafantaris (confusingly mis-named Karantaris in the text of the liner) who was a good friend and colleague of the composer in his early years. As a teacher he taught such international star players as Leonidas Kavakos and Georgios Demertzis - the latter is the dedicatee of the work. No surprise that this concerto should be a real celebration of violinistic virtuosity and have a distinctly Greek personality. Here the violinist is Yova Milanova. I like the way she attacks the part with fearless panache and no little personality. All three concertos make considerable demands on the soloist but this one is the most unrelenting. If the first concerto is nominally 'modern' and the second 'classical' then this third is the most 'romantic'. It opens with a cadenza for the solo violin which immediately creates a series of demanding technical challenges - a couple of times one imagines Milanova would have opted for a second take in a studio. The orchestra here is the LSU Philharmonia which I assume is a student orchestra. They play well although lacking the absolute precision of ensemble the music really requires - the very first note is a fraction anticipated by a cow-bell.

The work is in four clearly defined sections that play continuously; Introduction, Moto Perpetuo, Song and Finale-Dance. The Moto Perpetuo which starts around 3:20 [track 8] is not the scherzo-like section one might expect. Although the solo part keeps busily bustling around the instrument the orchestral accompaniment is much more reflective and lyrical - a mood which the soloist joins after only a minute or so which I assume marks the longest section of the work - Song - 4:45. Again Constantinides finds a shape to his melodies and flattened modal harmonies which feels distinctly nationalistic - and when the soloist joins in with an extended yearning lyrical melody the use of sustained string pedals gives the feel of folk-inspired drones over which the soloist sings and the woodwind arabesque. This is interrupted at 9:42 by a timpani roulade - although the violin has one more meditative comment - before a marimba leads into the Dance-Finale at 10:20. This is a joyfully uninhibited movement which is very demanding indeed of the soloist - again the orchestra lacks the razor-sharp attack that would lift the performance. The work closes with a brief dance-cadenza before the now-typical abrupt orchestral full stop.

Here and throughout the disc, the performances are rather compromised by a recording of no more than moderate technical quality at best. Although it does not say so anywhere on the disc these are live concert recordings - as evidenced by the occasional extraneous noise. The playing - certainly the solo playing - is very good given the live conditions but it sounds as if the engineer was limited in how and where to place the microphones. The result in the 1st Concerto is a strangely congested and compressed sound which gives the music a limited dynamic range and little air to breath. Constantinides writes dramatically but instrumental lines fight for dominance and the result is strangely fatiguing. Odder still in the 2nd Concerto it sounds as though somehow the channels have become reversed with the soloist and the upper strings over to the right with the other instruments offset left. The acoustic is more distanced in the 2nd concerto but still not pleasing. Most strangely the violin 'moves' at 2:03 in the final movement into a more central position and has a different acoustic - perhaps taped at more than one performance? Since these are clearly live performances I do not see the reason to guillotine every movement end so abruptly that the hall ambience is lost - this is a crude choice poorly executed. The third concerto is the least compromised by the recording although the sound is still rather too congested to do the detail of Constantinides' writing total justice. I appreciate that the cost of recording can often be prohibitive but I would expect an institution such as Louisiana State University to have access to a more sophisticated recording rig than the one that seems to have been used here.

As mentioned, the liner - in English only - is frustratingly brief and when it does impart some information about work or composer it is rather elusive. There are composer and artist biographies which again are adequate but no more - no date of birth or biographical information about the composer just a list of orchestras and awards. The paucity of detail here seems wholly unhelpful. No useful composer information - here or on the nominal website, no accurate information about the works' dates of composition or any detailed analysis and finally no proper recording information. To pique the listener's interest in unfamiliar music as much detail as possible really helps. The presentation of the music here seems determined to put the inquisitive listener off. Likewise, the disc runs to only just over fifty minutes - given Constantinides' prolific catalogue it seems a shame none of the available remaining 30 minutes disc space was used to further our collective knowledge of his work.

A tantalising taste of three interesting concertos but compromised by indifferent sonics and poor documentation.

Nick Barnard