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Hermann GRÄDENER (1844-1929)
Violin Concerto No.1 in D major, Op.22 (1890) [36:24]
Violin Concerto No.2 in D minor, Op.41 (1905) [38:06]
Karen Bentley Pollick (violin)
National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine/Gottfried Rabl
rec. 2018, House of Records, Kiev, Ukraine

Toccata seldom does things by halves. This is the inaugural volume in yet another exploratory series devoted to another composer that Time has forgotten. In the case of Hermann Grädener, a student of his composer father Karl, and later of the esteemed Josef Hellmesberger Sr and Felix Otto Dessoff at the Vienna Conservatoire, this release represents his first appearance on disc. Though he composed extensively he was best known as a teacher, alongside another figure who has undergone re-evaluation on disc of late, Robert Fuchs. Grädener’s student list is heroically long over the decades he taught and includes names better remembered as conductors and executants – Clemens Kraus and Rudolf Kolisch among them – as well as Korngold, Schreker, Webern and Weigl.

The first volume in his orchestral music series disinters his two violin concertos. Some considerable editorial work has been necessary in the case of the earlier concerto. The score and parts were lost but a copyist’s manuscript score was traced to the Library of Congress in Washington. Given the defective nature of elements of this, conductor Gottfried Rabl, who has been interested in the composer for many years, revised this copy incorporating details from the piano reduction and using his own experience. The D major concerto dates from 1890 and was dedicated to Adolf Brodsky who premiered it in December that year, in a programme that also included the premiere of Bruckner’s Third Symphony. In a similar kind of way Grädener’s String Quartet in D appeared at a Rosé Quartet evening in 1902 alongside the premiere of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht sextet (a certain Franz Schmidt playing second cello).

The Concerto is conventionally, romantically structured and is flecked with Brahmsian elements, not least the opening rather rustic horn motif. Grädener doesn’t hang around with a grandiose orchestral introduction but pitches the soloist into the melee to glide, embellish and gracefully draw the ear. The orchestral material is sweeping and finely orchestrated, its counter-themes strong. The cadenza is convoluted but affords numerous opportunities for barnstorming.  Contemporary critics made complaints about the work’s sense of form, but the slow movement is lyric and effective, with a gentle solemnity, albeit perhaps lacking true memorability and there’s plenty of declamatory writing in the finale where the soloist begins a recitative and skirls away in fine style. Karen Bentley Pollick is at her very best here, driving eagerly, warmly supported by Rabl and his forces.  There’s even a hint of the toreador about this movement, Grädener’s attempt at a Brahms-like Hungarian finale perhaps, though I suspect Mendelssohn’s shade, too, in the violin’s passagework.

Grädener could clearly call on the cream of the violinistic firmament for his premieres. After Brodsky in the First, Czech virtuoso František Ondříček premiered the Concerto in D minor in 1905. Ondříček had previously premiered the Dvořák Concerto. This is another large-scale, conventionally structured work and once again the composer has no interest in an orchestral introduction. Once more this is a strongly late-Romantic work with lyric finesse for the soloist. Toward the end of the first movement there are some chugging figures that sound a touch Sibelian though whether he knew the Finn’s Concerto, which had been premiered in 1904 I don’t know. It seems unlikely as the first version wasn’t published.  Ondříček’s cadenza has its complement of fireworks, including pizzicati and harmonics. With a nicely varied slow movement, songfulness and refinement predominant, and a heroic finale this was generally preferred critically speaking to the earlier concerto. I have a soft spot however for the 1890 concerto.

With booklet notes and production standards flying high, you can judge for yourself which concerto you prefer in performances that are focused and communicative.

Jonathan Woolf  

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