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John ADAMS (b.1947)
Violin Concerto [32:48]
Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op.35 [23:35]
Ilya Gringolts (violin)
Copenhagen Philharmonic/Santtu-Matias Rouvali (Adams), Julien Salemkour (Korngold)
rec. 2013/15, Concert Hall of the Royal Danish Academy of Music

As the accompanying brochure clearly states here are two at first apparently totally different composers who it would seem strange to couple on a single disc yet there they have much in common once examined. Both rejected atonality and serialism placing great emphasis on melody; they enjoyed writing tunes. At the time Korngold was composing tunes were certainly out of fashion and it was the New York Sun’s critic Irving Kolodin who famously sniped that his violin concerto was “more corn than gold” and it is therefore pleasing to note how successful and dearly loved his concerto has become while the name of Kolodin has been lost in the mists of time. Adams too also suffered to the extent that he was lumped together with those composers who explored new channels of expression and became categorised as ‘minimalists’ and though this term has some meaning it has proved unhelpful to those composers placed under this umbrella term. Musicologist Richard Taruskin prefers the term “Pattern and Process” music. In any event I’ve never found John Adams’ music in the least ‘minimalist’ in the way Michel Nyman’s is; yes there are elements of the repetition that seems the hallmark of this concept but while I often find Nyman’s music boring I never have that feeling with John Adams. John Adams always seems to know how far to take the repetitive strain so that a piece like his Foxtrot for orchestra from his opera Nixon in China is simply one that is full of fun and interest while his Short ride in a fast machine is one of the most often played pieces of ‘classical’ music today due to its inventive and thrillingly exciting nature. What he seems to have achieved is a melding of both melody and a measured element of repetition which makes his compositions instantly recognisable. It was not always the case that Adams chose melody over a more ‘intellectual’ approach but for almost 30 years he has ‘rediscovered’ it and his music has become more and more popular as a result.

Adams’ violin concerto begins innocuously enough with a gentle opening and those more knowledgeable about musical form will no doubt understand the relevance of the opening movement’s subtitle Quartet note = 78. This quiet start eventually becomes more restless and intense in its delivery allowing the soloist no let up. The second movement is also calm and peaceful with its subtitle chosen from a poem by Robert Haas Body Through Which the Dream Flows and the violin floats through the orchestral sound as if it was an otherworldly spirit seeking a place to rest. In total contrast the final movement is rhythmically fascinating and whose driving motoric impulse carries the listener along in a thrillingly involving journey and again the soloist is tested mightily with scarcely a moment’s pause. The orchestra is put through its paces too with a ‘minimalist’ canvas to create against which the violin weaves, soars and dives as it rushes headlong for the work’s exit.

After such an exciting and fast paced ending the beginning of Korngold’s violin concerto could not be more of a contrast with its singing lyrical opening; indeed he described it as being more for “a Caruso of the violin rather than a Paganini”. Korngold’s difficulty lay in his fantastic success in the realm of writing for the silver screen, a genre in which he established himself as one of Hollywood’s preeminent greats with scores for films such as Robin Hood (1938) and The Sea Hawk (1940). Though the saying has it that ‘nothing succeeds like success’ this was not the case for most composers of film music when they wanted to be taken seriously with their music for the concert hall. Korngold was already well established as an opera composer prior to leaving for Hollywood for the first time in 1934 yet this seemed to be forgotten when critics were reviewing his concert music. Korngold himself often felt he had, as the booklet notes put it “sold his talents too cheaply” and that consequently his ‘serious’ music was dismissed as being too facile. Perhaps the fact that each of the violin’s movements contains material from several of his film scores only handed his critics, who seemed to love to demolish reputations, the ammunition they sought. It is true that his concerto does have that sweep of melody that one associates with ‘film music’ but why that should condemn it in the eyes of these so-called experts it is hard to understand. The only criteria that should be applied to music is does it work and is it enjoyable for what other raison d’être can music have than its ability to communicate? Applying that criteria Korngold’s violin concerto is more gold than anything else; it has memorable tunes, wonderful harmony, long flowing lines, drama, a dash of pathos, in fact all the ingredients needed to create a successful composition. I imagine it is the main theme of the first movement that these carping critics found too ‘schmaltzy’ for their liking and which is developed further in the second movement. The third and final one also revisits these themes and make for a nicely rounded feel to the work which is enjoyable at every level and while true that it is uncomplicated it seems more than churlish to regard it as facile simply because it is easy to understand. It seems bizarre that it is music that would have found much favour in the Soviet Union at the time it was written precisely because it could be easily appreciated by the ‘common man’. The way critics pounced upon it is similar to the reception of Richard Addinsell’s music for the film Dangerous Moonlight which became known as The Warsaw Concerto and which was released in 1941, 6 years before Korngold’s concerto’s première. Rachmaninov having rejected the invitation to write the music the studio sought someone who could copy his style and create a heart on the sleeve piece of music to point up the drama in the film. Nevertheless, despite the critics who again poured scorn on it because of its, to them, overly romantic nature, the work has always had legions of fans as does Korngold’s violin concerto and just as Addinsell’s music has plenty of pianists willing to record it so does this work and Ilya Gringolts is a perfect soloist to bring out all the elements that make the concerto popular and the Copenhagen Phil under Julien Salemkour provide a worthy accompaniment. Equally Santtu-Mathias Rouvali commands the same forces brilliantly in Adams’ concerto which again Gringolts presents in the most appealing manner making the best possible case for that extremely enjoyable work.

To sum up, the apparently odd coupling of works by two seemingly disparate composers in fact works very well for there is much that binds them together and this makes for a very pleasing disc indeed.

Steve Arloff



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