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Christian BALDINI (b.1978)
Elapsing Twilight Shades (2008 Rev. 2012) [7:26]
Witold LUTOSŁAWSKI (1913-1994)
Chain 2 (1985) [17:52]
György LIGETI (1923-2006)
Violin Concerto (1989 Rev. 1993) [28:57]
Edgard VARÈSE (1883-1965)
Amériques (1918-21 Rev. 1927) [23:26]
Maximilian Haft (violin) (Lutosławski)
Miranda Cuckson (violin) (Ligeti)
UC Davis Symphony Orchestra, Munich Radio Orchestra (Baldini) /Christian Baldini
rec. live Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, UC Davis 2-5 November 2019 (Lutosławski) 5 May 2018 (Ligeti) 2 May 2015 (Varèse); 29 April 2012 Felsenreitschule, Salzburg (Baldini)
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview

It is a very pleasing thing to see the Ligeti violin concerto maintain a foothold in the repertoire in both the concert hall and the studio. To a lesser extent, the same can be said of Lutosławski’s scintillating Chain 2. Whilst they are very different works, both combine modernistic techniques with a capacity to communicate powerfully to the non specialist listener. There is a real danger that a lot of the music written in the second half of the 20th century, whether it be Boulez or Robert Simpson, gets left behind. Many contemporary composers complain that the lack of repeat performances means that audiences do not get a chance to become properly familiar with often complex scores. All the performers on this record need to be commended, not just for their excellent performances but for their commitment to keeping this music alive.

The two concertante works are bookended by orchestral works that have a lot more in common than might seem the case at first glance. Varèse’s work Amériques is probably as notorious as it is famous. A startlingly prophetic work, as much as more celebrated pieces such as the Rite of Spring, it anticipates a lot of the course of musical modernism over the one hundred years that followed its premiere. It is still hard to believe the early date of its composition. My personal issue with it is that I have never found that it is a work that lives up to its billing. The Rite of Spring or the Miraculous Mandarin may have been ferociously modern in their day but they are also wonderful pieces of music. Amériques has never seemed to add up to more than the sum of its avant garde parts to me, even when given as persuasive and committed advocacy as on this recording.

I had almost the opposite issue with the Baldini score that kicks things off. No modernist cliché is left unused, leaving me with the distinct feeling that I had heard all this before, and done better. Indeed, a lot of it was done by Varèse rather a long time ago. I haven’t heard any of Baldini’s other music and I don’t want to be excessively harsh, as it is never less than professionally done. I will file it away, somewhat ruefully, under the heading ‘Not for me’.

Baldini as conductor is the glue that holds this album and, in this regard, I can be unreservedly enthusiastic. He is a very positive presence in both the concertante works and gets playing of real conviction from both the orchestras featured here. The Munich Radio Orchestra is one of the two orchestras of Bavarian Radio, the other, of course, being the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. The main band on this disc, the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra, are new to me. A student orchestra specialising in the work of living and under-represented composers, they sound anything but a scratch band. Their playing throughout is characterised by passionate commitment to getting the music across. Their success at doing so is evidenced by the great roars of approval that greet the Lutosławski and the Ligeti.

The Lutosławski was written specifically for Anne Sophie Mutter who recorded it with the composer on the podium for DG. It is claimed that he had to limit himself to more conventional violin techniques given the then tender years of his chosen soloist. If true, it was a happy accident, as the combination of the experimental with the traditional is a happy one, avoiding the pitfalls of blandness or experimentation by numbers that afflicts many crossover pieces today.

I confess I find Mutter’s recording somewhat starchy. I always imagine that what Lutosławski had in mind was that kittenish Mutter of her sensational debut with Karajan playing Mozart concertos. Haft has much more of a spring in his step and everyone involved sounds like they are having a fun time. You would never suspect that this piece has as much humour in it from the Mutter version. Under normal circumstances, Haft would be the undoubted star of this particular show but even he is eclipsed by the scintillating Miranda Cuckson in the Ligeti.

Ligeti’s violin concerto burst into my consciousness thanks to a Boulez-directed disc of the Ligeti concertos on DG with the work’s dedicatee, Saschko Gawriloff, as soloist. I always assumed that recording pretty much closed the book on how to perform this gleefully crazy piece, but that was until I heard this performance. This is a piece that teems with ideas, wonderful, weird and wacky (ocarinas anyone?) and Miranda Cuckson’s enthusiasm is utterly infectious. She makes complete sense of the many disparate elements in an absolute tour de force reading. The energy levels of soloist and orchestra match those of the indefatigable Ligeti at his most unbuttoned. If you have yet to make the acquaintance of this masterpiece, then this is now the performance to go for.

The work isn’t all capers and extravagance. The Passacaglia is full of pathos and great solemnity, reminding us that some of the most profound lines in King Lear come from the mouth of the Fool.

This is the first recording of hers I have listened to, though she has amassed a considerable discography which I shall now be checking out. It is a real pleasure to hear a musician of such charisma taking on contemporary music instead of yet another Sibelius or Tchaikovsky concerto.

After all this excitement, I found Amériques even greyer than usual, so this generously filled disc is a bit of a mixed bag, but more than redeemed by top-notch Lutosławski and a very special account of the Ligeti. Cuckson’s is a name I will be keeping an eye and an ear out for!

David McDade

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