British Violin Concertos
Paul PATTERSON (b. 1947)
Violin Concerto No. 2 (“Serenade”) (2013) [21:57]
Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929-1988)
Concerto for Violin and Small Orchestra, Op. 12 (1952) [24:10]
Gordon JACOB (1895-1984)
Concerto for Violin and String Orchestra (1953) [21:37]
Clare Howick (violin)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Grant Llewellyn
rec. City Halls, Glasgow, 2017
NAXOS 8.573791 [67:44]
Clare Howick seems to have carved out something of a niche for herself as being a go-to violinist for neglected British violin music. Following her first disc of violin and piano works by Cyril Scott on Dutton, she switched to recording for Naxos and gave us discs devoted to some more Scott, neglected British female composers, British (male) composers and now a selection of British violin concertos. I suspect that the term “British” as opposed to “English” is intended, by Naxos, to impart a degree of consistency to this sequence of recordings—although the composers represented on this current disc are actually all English, as well as relatively neglected. In fact, the disc usefully plugs gaps in the catalogue with three world-premiere commercial recordings.
We start with the second of Paul Patterson’s violin concertos, subtitled “Serenade”. I was not familiar with Patterson’s other works before hearing this. Having, on the odd occasion, encountered his name in the BBC Radio 3 listings in Radio Times, I had (for some reason I cannot recall) unfairly assumed that he was just another contemporary composer—probably one of the many fashionable followers of minimalism or serialism or suchlike—whose offerings would not appeal to me. I therefore made no particular effort to listen to broadcasts of them. This was evidently a bad mistake. Despite the fact that the present concerto was written as recently as 2013 (for the present soloist), what we have here is completely tonal, with no “isms” evident, and not far from the spikier end of the works of Vaughan Williams. The work is in three unbroken movements: a lively Toccata (with a prominent role for harp), a wistful and extended Barcarolle and, finally, a sparkling Valse-Scherzo that is almost in the world of Wieniawski. Whilst it is not quite instantly memorable, I shall return to it enthusiastically to allow it to grow on me. The dedicatee’s performance sounds splendid, and I cannot fault it.
The other two violin concertos on the disc date from some sixty years earlier, and their styles are obviously more of their time, but not that dissimilar. Anybody familiar with the tonal worlds of Hindemith and Rawsthorne would recognise the idiom of Kenneth Leighton’s Concerto for Violin and Small Orchestra. This work was dedicated to the Canadian violinist, Frederick Grinke, who gave its radio premiere with the St Cecilia Orchestra under Trevor Harvey in 1953. I have a recording of that broadcast, sadly shorn of its final movement, that I have listened to with pleasure on several occasions. Of course the old mono recording is rather inferior and, probably as a result of a tape speed issue, it is a semitone higher in pitch than the present performance. Nevertheless, it provides for an interesting comparison and, judging by the similar tempi throughout (once one has allowed for the pitch difference) and dynamics, may have influenced it. Howick even manages to sound quite like Grinke in places although I prefer her slightly better-nourished tone.
The concerto is in four movements. The opening Allegro con brio alternates a dark motif with a yearning second subject. At the height of its development we get a cadenza (which occasionally reminds me of some of the solo passage-work of Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto), leading to a somewhat martial recapitulation and a final restatement of the opening motif. This is followed by an intense and beautiful Intermezzo marked Moderato con moto - sempre dolce, and a short, edgy Scherzo - Allegro molto e nervoso. The emotional core of the work is in its brooding fourth movement Epilogue - Lento, molto sostenuto ed intenso. It has an arch-like form that, as Paul Conway’s fine booklet notes put it, builds “to an impassioned climax before finally retreating into a cloud of resigned despondency”. Actually, the ending did not strike me that negatively but I know what Conway means.
Gordon Jacob’s Concerto for Violin and String Orchestra of 1953 rounds off the disc. This is also dedicated to Grinke and most readers will probably know what to expect in terms of compositional style, which is rather lighter and brighter than the style of the Leighton work. There are three movements here: two taut and brisk Allegros framing (and providing useful contrast with) “an extended and impassioned” Andante espressivo. The middle movement, in particular, has a degree of flexibility and spontaneity that is “reinforced by regular changes in pulse between triple and quadruple time”.
Performances throughout are similarly excellent and well-judged. The contributions of the soloist and the orchestra are clear and well-balanced, although I have a slight caveat concerning the recording. This initially struck me as having a slightly veiled acoustic, not a feature I would have associated with the City Halls, Glasgow, judging by several broadcasts from there. That said, the impression is fleeting and one’s ear soon adjusts. This is probably a disc that is better not played through in one sitting because the compositional styles, whilst distinct enough, have sufficient similarities to require more of a break (or a contrast of texture) between them. Do not let that stop you exploring this, though. All the other reviews I have seen have welcomed it unreservedly, so it should prove popular!