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Hans HUBER (1852-1921)
Violin Concerto No 2 in D minor (1885?) [18:12]
Paul JUON (1872-1940)
Violin Concerto No 1 in B minor, Op.42 (1908/9) [36:49]
Maria Solozobova (violin)
Collegium Musicum Basel/Kevin Griffiths
rec. 2016, Music Hall Stadtcasino Basel
SONY CLASSICAL 80358 118320 [55:15]

The Swiss composer, Hans Huber, produced two violin concertos. The first appeared in 1879 and the second seems to have been reworked from a violin sonata (the unnumbered “Sonata Pathétique”) that dates from 1885. Sadly, the work was not taken up and it was left in manuscript. The present recording provides us with what is almost certainly the first opportunity to hear a performance of this second concerto since its composition. The composer was to re-use the material – transforming it back into the first movement of another violin sonata (the Op.110 “Appassionata” sonata, his sixth). When I reviewed a fine Sterling disc of Huber’s Piano Concertos Nos 1 and 3 a year or so ago (review), I expressed the view that the style and substance of the two piano concertos (of 1878 and 1899) owed more than a little to Litolff, a composer from the previous generation. By comparison, whilst there are stylistic and structural similarities to the works of Huber’s contemporaries (e.g. Saint-Saëns) the present violin concerto doesn’t strike me as being derivative. Moreover, the work sounds fairly typical of its time.

The concerto is in the form of a single, cyclical movement. It opens as though it means business, with a promising minor key introduction, and the soloist enters shortly afterwards. The main themes are not as memorable as those of, say, Saint-Saëns’s Violin Concerto No 1 (which dates from twenty years earlier) or any of the contemporary concertos of Hubay, but they are quickly recognisable. These themes are developed up to about 9 minutes into the work, where there is a slower section – although this is not the equivalent of a slow movement because it moves back to continuing theme development amongst its lyrical meanderings. There is a brief silence around 13’ and this precedes the final section of the work – which also does not correspond to the (usually fast) finale of a typical late nineteenth century concerto. Instead we get the orchestral return of the first section’s main theme, picked up by the soloist, and the minor theme is slowly transformed into a major key variant, gradually accelerating to the finishing line. The work strikes me as well worth hearing and it certainly doesn’t outstay its welcome.

The other (and, arguably, more significant) composer celebrated on the present disc, is Paul Juon. Juon was born in 1872 in Moscow, of mixed Swiss and German descent, and educated there by Taneyev, Arensky and the Czech violinist, Jan Hrimaly. He showed early promise as a composer and was dubbed “the Russian Brahms” by his fellow student, Sergei Rachmaninov. After completing his studies in Berlin, under Woldemar Bargiel, he left to teach in Russia but, after only one year, he was hired back to the Hochschule by its director, Joseph Joachim. He was to settle in Germany, spending more than half of his life there. As well as teaching and composing he wrote a book on harmony (also translating into German those of Arensky and Tchaikovsky) and edited the music of Sibelius for that composer’s German publisher. He retired in 1934 to his ancestral home in Switzerland, where he died in obscurity in 1940. Until fairly recently, little attention has been paid to his compositional legacy and the reasons for this are not particularly obvious – although Juon was probably not the best publicist for his own music. I feel that his own description of his works as “almost without exception rather austere and of a gloomy northern mood” could be said to be taking self-deprecation too far – and the evidence for my opinion is to be heard in the present violin concerto.

The Juon Violin Concerto here is his Op 42, the first of three in the genre. (Note that the booklet contents list refers to it as Number 2 but the later notes get it right.) The second concerto, Op. 49, appeared on a Musica Helvetica disc in 1997 but the present disc provides the first recording of the first concerto that I can find. The work dates from around 1908/9 and it was dedicated to the violinist, Mikhail Press. It is in three movements and is twice the length of the Huber concerto. The first movement (marked “Moderato”) has an arresting minor key theme for the soloist above plucked strings – quite an original effect and not at all gloomy. Unfortunately, this degree of originality is not sustained and the work begins to sound a bit like the note-spinning of the concertos of Schoeck and Reger, with a slightly gratuitous cadenza in the middle of the movement. Although it occasionally redeems itself I feel this movement is, ultimately, unmemorable. The second movement is a gentle Romanze, marked “Andante”. The third movement Rondo (“Allegretto martellando”) opens with a violin flourish before a leaping theme is introduced and developed. There is an interesting minor theme subject a little later, with timpani support for the first beat of each bar, where there are slight nods towards the Sibelius concerto (1904/5) - and I am tempted to wonder whether this owes anything to Juon’s editing of the music of Sibelius. On the whole it’s a good work, worth hearing, and I feel it might represent a lost opportunity for Juon. There are fleeting themes and elements of orchestral writing which, had they been focused on and developed more effectively, might well have raised this composer up to much greater prominence.

In any event I enjoyed both these concertos, although neither can fairly be regarded as “Une Révélation” (the title of the disc). I assume that phrase is intended to refer to the soloist, the Russian violinist, Maria Solozobova. I was slightly disappointed by her first entry in the Huber but things improve after that and it is soon evident that we have here a very fine violinist with excellent intonation, a fine technique and no distracting mannerisms. I would hesitate to say that her playing justifies being described as “a revelation” when there are so many similarly talented young soloists around. On the other hand she certainly gives a splendid account of both concertos, supported by what sounds like a good-sized symphony orchestra (belying its title which, to me, is more suggestive of a small and rather academic chamber ensemble). The recording is very acceptable, with a wide dynamic range - slightly reverberant and with the soloist nicely spotlit.

The booklet comes with German and English notes (no French – despite the title) in an irritatingly small font. The notes provide plenty of pictures, artist information and composer biographies but almost nothing about the works themselves – which is a pity. That said the biggest quibble about this disc is probably the short playing time.

This is a very worthwhile addition to the catalogue and, whilst the neglect of these two composers remains unsurprising, this disc usefully provides hints of what might have been.

Bob Stevenson



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