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Wolfgang RIHM (b. 1952)
Duo concerto for violin, cello and orchestra (2015) [20:15]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Concerto for violin, cello and orchestra, Op. 102 (1887) [33:54]
John HARBISON (b. 1938)
Double Concerto, to the memory of Roman Totenberg (2010) [20:54]
Mira Wang (violin), Jan Vogler (cello), Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Peter Oundjian
rec. 2017, Glasgow
SONY 19075836752 [77:34]

The husband and wife partnership Mira Wang (violin) and Jan Vogler (cello) play double concertos by Johannes Brahms, Wolfgang Rihm and John Harbison. A combination of an established masterpiece by a great composer and a new work each from two of the finest living composers, this is the sort of programme that I always look forward to hearing. The Rihm and Harbison recordings are world premieres.

Jan Vogler, a cellist of international renown, is also director of the Dresden Music Festival. In 2016 I was delighted to interview him whilst in the city, reporting at the festival. I also reviewed Vogler’s outstanding 2016 Lukaskirche, Dresden recording of the Schumann Cello Concerto, a work which in America virtually serves as his calling card.

Brahms’s Double Concerto written in the summer of 1887 was his final symphonic work. A much loved masterwork, it has established a firm place in the concert hall. The same year in Cologne, violinist Joseph Joachim and cellist Robert Hausmann (members of the eminent Joachim Quartet) introduced the score with the Gürzenich Orchestra and Brahms conducting. The concerto served to reinforce Brahms’s friendship with Hausmann whom he had promised a cello concerto and helped to reestablish his broken friendship with Joachim after personal difficulties. Wang and Vogler first performed the work together in 1996. One senses that they relish every note, affirming the innate autumnal intimacy of the writing. Striking is the irresistible range of colour which the soloists achieve. In the Andante, the stylish playing is passionate but not cloying.
Wolfgang Rihm is one of the pre-eminent contemporary composers. The winner of several prestigious awards, he has received numerous commissions; his prolific output includes a considerable number of concertos. Over the last decade, I have been privileged to hear several of Rihm’s works in the concert hall. In 2014 at Berlin, I especially recall performances of Transitus for orchestra (2012/2013) and Trio Concerto for violin, cello, piano and orchestra (2014).

The Duo concerto for violin, cello and orchestra was written in 2015 to mark the tenth anniversary of the reopening of the Frauenkirche, Dresden after its destruction during World War II. Orpheus Chamber Orchestra,the recipients of the concerto, together with Wang and Vogler, premiered the score at Carnegie Hall, New York in October 2015 (not 2016 as stated in the notes). At almost 23 minutes here, the single-movement score is an inspiring and intensely argued relationship between violin and cello. Rihm describes it as having “a kind of Bachian ideal of integrated interweaving of polyphonic lines”. Like most of Rihm’s work that I have encountered, the score is about mood rather than melody. There is a tenacious swirling quality constantly moving forward, either lurching awkwardly or occasionally smoothly. It never feels as if the violin and cello are pitted aggressively against each other. It rather is more like a dialogue between cultured minds with views sometimes opposing, sometimes like-minded. In Wang and Vogler’s performance a predominantly edgy, anxiety-laden character contrasts with an air of relative calm and reflection of an autumnal hue. A curious sense of mystery is never far away.

John Harbison may be best known for his two-act opera The Great Gatsby but he is a prolific composer writing in most genres. In 2010 he wrote his Double Concerto for Boston Symphony Orchestra and music director James Levine, and soloists Wang and Vogler. The score bears a dedication to Roman Totenberg; the late Polish-American violinist was ninety-nine when, with Harbison, he attended the premiere Wang and Vogler gave in April 2010 with Boston Symphony Orchestra under Carlos Kalmar at Symphony Hall, Boston. (Roman Totenberg was Wang’s teacher and mentor.) This is Harbison’s second double concerto, after the 1985 one for oboe, clarinet and orchestra. It certainly is not a concerto where the violin and cello are combative, duelling for dominance. Harbison assuredly creates a predominantly harmonious relationship. There is a noticeable percussion contribution. Whirling and agreeable on the surface in the first movement Misunderstandings there is a chilly undercurrent of sadness which increases in anxiety. The second movement Notturno sees the soloists mirror each other; the character of the writing, as one might imagine, is conspicuously nocturnal. There is a cold, rather unsettling quality, with brief explosive episodes of fear and trepidation. Discord is the order of the day in the third movement Tempo giusto, as if searching frantically for a resolution. Seeking to play a theme unitedly in octaves, the violin and cello are extremely closely entwined as if in a small space. Towards the conclusion a sense of harmony is gradually achieved, if rather unconvincingly, which may be a warning to mankind.

With such a limited number of concertante works for violin and cello in the repertoire, Mira Wang and Jan Vogler, clearly relishing the opportunity to perform together, are in quite glorious form. One senses a special connection between the partners, notably their strong focus, immaculate phrasing and articulation. Their Stradivari instruments emit an exquisite sound, glowing and rich in tone. The duo has the advantage of outstanding orchestral support from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Peter Oundjian – unified, committed and entirely sympathetic. It is evident that the players have been impeccably prepared. With such an impressive performance new, music undoubtedly holds no fears for this orchestra. The sound is outstanding, slightly warm, especially clear and with satisfying balance. In the booklet there is no essay as such, but Jan Vogler provides a helpful note.

A valuable album, a combination of an established masterpiece with two contemporary works, which could hardly receive better advocacy.

Michael Cookson



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