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Péter EÖTVÖS (b. 1944)
Violin Concerto No 3 ‘Alhambra’ (2018) [23:19]
Isabelle Faust (violin)
Orchestre de Paris/Pablo Heras-Casado
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Le Sacre du Printemps (1913) [64:22]
Orchestre de Paris/Pablo Heras-Casado
rec. September 2019, Grande Salle Pierre Boulez, Philharmonie de Paris.
Reviewed as 24/48 download with pdf booklet from eclassical.com
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902655 [87:41]

This disc’s main attraction is the new concerto by Péter Eötvös, the “Alhambra”, dedicated to Isabelle Faust and Pablo Heras-Casado. The composer writes that the piece stands at “the intersection of Spanish and Arabic culture” and is intended to evoke “a walk in the mysterious building of Alhambra”. The latter is reflected not only in the distinctly exotic musical language, but also in the lack of overall form in the piece, which on first listen sounded structurally almost like Pictures at an Exhibition, strung together attacca into a one-movement concerto. Each ‘picture’, or perhaps rather ‘courtyard’ or ‘room’, is adorned with textural colour from a varied orchestral palette; particularly noticeable is the mandolin infusing the harmony with an Arabic edge. However, the star of the show is undoubtedly Isabelle Faust, whose tone can switch between eerie austerity and majestic warmth at the flick of a switch; her liberal but precise use of tonal effects such as ponticello and glissandi, in each and every case elevating the music beyond the score, shows an affinity between composer and dedicatee. It is often challenging for newcomers to music lacking traditional tonality to make sense of such a piece; my suggestion would be to try and look past this fact and allow the timbres to evoke a scene in the mind – what an open ear can garner even in the absence of clear melody and harmony may well surprise you.

Though pagan Russia may lie almost a continent away from Moorish Andalusia, the influence of Stravinsky on Eötvös can be heard throughout the concerto, so it is appropriate that it is paired here with the Rite of Spring – indeed, the first appearance of the orchestra in Alhambra sounds remarkably similar to the opening of the Sacrificial Dance. Heras-Casado elicits clarity and transparency from the score; compared to the excellent CBSO under Simon Rattle (Stravinsky Ballets Warner 9677112, budget price - review, now download only) the opening is less atmospheric, the Augurs of Spring possessing less manic energy, but the sense of forward motion and continuity constantly reminds the listener of the balletic roots of what is now very much seen as a concert piece. The Spring Rounds could perhaps have benefited from more heft in the sound, the subsequent rituals from more menace. The Sacrificial Dance certainly boasts a startling immediacy, with the rasping brass and dissonant chords, but does not quite have the demonic, possessed edge which Valery Gergiev and the Kirov Orchestra present (Philips 4680352), that elevates this music to the next level – a literal dance to the death really should not be treated politely. However, whereas so many conductors fail to link the scenes together, this performance comes together as a coherent whole.

As the premiere recording of a new work, then, this is well worth a listen, especially performed by an outstanding violinist wholly at one with the music. The Rite is faced with heavy competition, and preferred recordings are often highly individual – each and every performance sheds new light on a score that never fails to fascinate, and this is no different. The two pieces come together as a coherent and enlightening programme.

Colin C.F. Chow




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