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The deeper the blue…
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Concerto for Violin and String Orchestra (1924-25) [16:58]
Kenneth HESKETH (b. 1968)
Inscription-Transformation (2015) [14:07]
Henri DUTILLEUX (1916-2013)
Au gré des ondes (1946, orch. Hesketh 2014) [13:49]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Tzigane (1924) [10:17]
Sonata for Violin and Piano (1927) [17:04]
Janet Sung (violin)
Simon Callaghan (piano)
Britten Sinfonia/Jac van Steen
rec. 2018, St John the Evangelist, Upper Norwood; Wathen Hall, St Paul’s School, Barnes, UK

“The deeper the blue…” is from a quotation by Wassily Kandinsky, the title alluding to colour in the music for this unusually varied and entertaining programme.

Vaughan Williams’ compact Violin Concerto is neo-classical in conception, and refers to Bach in references to the Concerto in D minor and other works. The lively outer movements have plenty of rhythmic verve but are tricky to make sound really good in the solo part. Janet Sung does a decent enough job, but is a little less secure in the first movement when compared with Tamsin Waley-Cohen on the Signum Classics label (review), who emphasises the pesante more here, giving herself just a little more time for all those wide intervals. The central Adagio is lovely and the final movement drives forward with unstoppable impetus.

Kenneth Hesketh’s Inscription-Transformation is one of a number of works by this composer that have a memorial idea as their impetus, in this case the composer Henri Dutilleux and the composer’s grandmother, who died while work on the piece was ongoing. This is one of those contemporary works that is full of life and translucence, the orchestral sound both tough and fragile at the same time, with constant changes of texture and colour and the dialogue between soloist (in this case the musician for whom the work was written) and the orchestra is both combative and symbiotic. There is a movement towards entropy as the work nears its conclusion; energy dissipating while a quiet intensity is maintained. This is not a beauty parlour of ease and relaxation, but it does have qualities of magnetic fascination.

Henri Dutilleux wrote Au gré des ondes as a suite of six character pieces for solo piano intended for use as radio interludes. Kenneth Hesketh’s orchestrations pick up on the echoes of Ravel and Les Six composers such as Milhaud and Poulenc, giving them something of a Hollywood opulence but none the worse for that. These are hugely entertaining pieces and are full of Gallic charm, with the energetic joy of the younger Dutilleux very much in evidence.

Ravel’s Tzigane is a violinist’s virtuoso staple and gets a good airing here, the orchestra playing with gusto and subtlety, and Janet Sung expertly dealing with the harmonics and both-handed pizzicato. The Violin Sonata with its ‘Blues’ middle movement is another well-known work, coming up against classic recordings such as that with Arthur Grumiaux and Istvan Hajdu (review). Sung and Simon Callaghan are very good indeed, but it’s almost impossible to beat the character and sense of life and fun Grumiaux bring to this work. It may also seem a bit odd to be ending a largely orchestral programme to a close with chamber music, but strangely enough it works well as a sort of ‘outro’, and Ravel’s piano writing has enough reminders of orchestral moments from his opera and concerto works that it doesn’t seem as if we are missing out on anything.

This is an unusual but highly successful programme that has a bit of everything, from Vaughan Williams’ forthright bounce to the modern sophistication of Hesketh, and a wealth of French colour in the rest of this well produced recording. Jac van Steen as ever has a fine ear for the orchestral detail to make things work as they should, and I’m delighted to have made this disc’s acquaintance.

Dominy Clements

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