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Peter EÖTVÖS (b. 1944)
Violin Concerto No. 2 DoReMi (2012) [21:49]
Cello Concerto Grosso (2010-11) [26:53]
Speaking Drums (2012-13) [22:18]
Midori (violin); Jean-Guihen Queyras (cello); Martin Grubinger (percussion)
Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France/Peter Eötvös
rec. 17-24 November 2014, Auditorium de Radio France, Paris.
ALPHA 208 [71:02]

Peter Eötvös, like his compatriot György Ligeti, was born in Transylvania. The folk music of this region had a big impact on the latter and has also influenced the compositions of Eötvös. Although Béla Bartók was not born there, he carried out his fieldwork as an ethnomusicologist in that region and his work made a lasting impression on both Ligeti and Eötvös. It is no exaggeration to say there is a similar vein of this folk music running through the oeuvre of the three composers. All three were well represented on one programme that made it on my Recordings of the Year list in 2013. The two-disc set also conducted by Eötvös included his first violin concerto, Seven, commemorating the death of the astronauts on the Columbia space shuttle, with Patricia Kopatchinskaja as soloist (review). I had a difficult time coming to terms with that concerto and still find it a tough listen. I have no such problem with the concertos represented on this new CD. All three contain elements of Hungarian or Transylvanian folk music and no little amount of humor.

DoReMi, the title of which refers to first three notes of a major scale as well as a distortion of Midori’s name, begins with C-D-E on triangle and flute before the violin enters and continues almost nonstop for the remainder of the work. The concerto is built on the foundation of the three notes, but is an imaginatively scored and challenging composition for both soloist and orchestra. The transparent scoring tends to feature the higher range of the instruments, especially in its use of the woodwinds and percussion. The violin acts as a counterbalance, at times employing the lower, richer register, but also covering the full range of the instrument. The whole orchestra rarely performs at the same time, while humorous passages with snarling brass and dance rhythms stand out. The work is in three movements with minimal breaks between them, and the violinist has a sort of cadenza before the end of the last movement. However, she is accompanied here by a violist who plays a drone until the part becomes more competitive than mere accompaniment. The work ends abruptly, but not before the violinist performs a distorted do-re-mi and some quarter tone sliding. Bartók used similar quarter tones in his Violin Concerto No. 2, though not to the extent that Eötvös does here. One can assume that this performance by dedicatee Midori with the composer conducting is authoritative. They perform it as well as can be imagined and the recording does not let them down either.

On the other hand, Patricia Kopatchinskaja performed the concerto in 2014 with the Berlin Philharmonic under Eötvös, available for viewing on the orchestra’s Digital Concert Hall website. While one can appreciate the work simply as audio, seeing it performed brings out a whole other dimension—especially with Kopatchinskaja as protagonist. Her facial expressions and her duo (or duel!) with violist Máté Szűcs are worth the price of admission alone. Kopatchinskaja perfectly embodies the happy nature and the mischievousness of this work, as she did the anguish and tragedy of Seven.

The Cello Concerto Grosso is a more serious and bigger piece, scored for a large orchestra with much percussion. Again the title explains the nature of the concerto, where the cello soloist interacts with the cello section, and indeed the whole orchestra. Yet the solo cellist is more than primus inter pares and has a technically demanding role. The soloist begins the piece with an agitated theme, before the percussion enters soon after, and plays throughout the concerto. The cello growls and scrapes and employs Bartókian pizzicato with plucked strings striking the fingerboard, but has a more lyrical side as well. Like the violin concerto, it is in three movements played more or less continuously. The first movement contains rhythms that sound like a foot-stomping dance and quick, light passages joined by the cello section. It ends on a single high tone that also begins the second movement where the cellist has a slow, lamenting theme. There is vivid color in the orchestration with growling trombones, bells, and tom-toms. The movement concludes with a high horn solo which is picked up by the cello before the last movement launches with percussion, a solo violin playing a high, folkish theme, and then chirping woodwinds. If anything, this movement is more rhythmic than the first two, betraying its Transylvanian heritage. With a final upward flourish by the cello and a percussionist giving a handclap, the concerto ends.

As with Midori in the violin concerto, Jean-Guihen Queyras clearly knows his way around the challenging score and is vividly accompanied by the French orchestra under the composer’s direction. There is a visual alternative here, too, with the Berlin Philharmonic on the orchestra’s website and the concerto’s dedicatee, Miklós Perényi, as soloist, with Eötvös conducting. It is worthwhile if only to see Perényi’s interaction with the cello section. That performance took place while the ink was still wet and has the added enticement of a premiere, though the concerto is not so theatrical as to require video.

A case where video seems absolutely mandatory is surely the percussion concerto, Speaking Drums. This amazing piece requires the percussion soloist not only to play a large variety of instruments - including kitchen utensils and a trash can lid - but also to speak or shout in rhythm lines by the Hungarian poet, Sándor Weöres, whose verses Ligeti also set. Scored for a more chamber-size orchestra, but with a large percussion section requiring two additional players, the concerto is very colourful and a lot of fun to watch as the soloist moves about the stage. Its three movements are entitled Dance Song, Nonsense Songs, and Passacaglia and reflect the folk and dance nature of the work. As Max Nyffeler writes in the CD booklet notes, “the dance element is omnipresent in this music; indeed, we may even look upon the work as an apotheosis of the dance, which is thrillingly embodied in the person of the performer.” In this case the performer, Martin Grubinger, owns the piece. As thrilling as it was to listen to the concerto on the CD, watching a performance on YouTube by Grubinger with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony under Vasily Petrenko makes everything clear as well as allowing one to observe the sheer enjoyment of the soloist. One cannot fully appreciate the piece without seeing the huge variety of instruments with all kinds of bells, drums, and mallet percussion played in innovative ways. Now that I have seen it performed, I can visualize the work much better when listening to the CD.

I would have designated this disc as a “Recording of the Month” was it not for the fact that one should also see these works to fully appreciate them. Certainly I cannot imagine better performances than the ones here and they are captured in the most vivid sound. Alpha continues to impress with its production values, too, though a bit more detail on the works would have been welcome. In any case, I can strongly recommend this disc to anyone who cares about contemporary music that both challenges and entertains the listener.

Leslie Wright

Previous review: Brian Wilson



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