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Roy HARRIS (1898-1979)
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1949) [28:08]
John ADAMS (b. 1947)
Concerto for Violin & Orchestra (1993) [34:11]
Tamsin Waley-Cohen (violin)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Litton
rec. 4-6 April 2016, Studio 1, BBC Maida Vale, London.

This recording has been reviewed as a download by Brian Wilson, and I am fortunate enough to be able to supplement his words with an opinion derived from the CD release.

This is an intriguing coupling of two fine American violin concertos, the more recent better known than the elder, but both very much worth your attention. Roy Harris’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra has a rhapsodic feel, especially in its first movement. Greater energy propels the second section, though the chorale-like progressions running through both create a sense of unity. The piece has something of the feel of a journey, the character of the music changing with landscapes both pastoral and urban. To carry on this analogy, the third section might be a nocturne – dreamy and eloquent rather than lapsing into true repose, but setting us up nicely for the broad sense of arrival expressed in the final section.

Casting around for comparisons for this concerto I was happy to revisit the impassioned performance recorded by Gregory Fulkerson and the Louisville Orchestra (review). Fulkerson’s more weighty tone and intense vibrato gives the music a feeling of conviction that is carried more lyrically by Tamsin Waley-Cohen. Which you prefer will be a question of taste, but the vintage Louisville recording remains an excellent choice.

John Adams’s Concerto for Violin & Orchestra has been recorded a few times in the past. Brian Wilson mentioned ChloŽ Hanslip on Naxos (review). The Telarc label has a vibrant performance with Robert McDuffie with the Houston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Christoph Eschenbach, but this is one of those recordings on which the solo violin is overly spotlit in the balance, preventing much in the way of blending with the orchestra and becoming tiresome after a while. On the Nonesuch label, Gidon Kremer with the London Symphony Orchestra and Kent Nagano is a bit more realistic in this regard, and Kremer is more rhetorical as a player. You may or may not prefer this aspect of the performance but he is at least never dull. The sound in the remarkable Chaconne second movement is a cut above most and to my mind beats this Signum version, which has less clarity in the electronic sounds. With the Toccare final movement Waley-Cohen/Litton are a touch more hectic than Kremer/Nagano, whose orchestra sounds more controlled as a result. Those flashes of Americana at around the 3 minute mark are also more extravagant and effective from Nagano and the LSO. In the end, Tamsin Waley-Cohen and Andrew Litton turn in a very fine performance and the Signum recording is good if just a little studio-bound. My preference does however go to Gidon Kremer and Kent Nagano for this concerto, and the Shaker Loops coupling is also a superb performance.

On its own terms this release is full of fine qualities, with excellent playing and music both virtuoso and gorgeously sensual. For myself I find the Louisville recording of the Roy Harris concerto to have a bit more character, even though that character has less discipline in the orchestral strings at times. Tamsin Waley-Cohen sings in this work where Gregory Fulkerson plays as if his life depends on it, and which view on this concerto speaks most to you will be entirely personal. John Adams’ concerto is a richer tapestry of sound with Gidon Kremer and Kent Nagano, and while this Signum production is very good I come away with a drier and more chamber-music feel for a piece that at times elbows at the boundaries of its genre. This is a rewarding recording, but shopping around can also yield rewards.

Dominy Clements
Previous review: Brian Wilson



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