The Red Violin: Concertos by Kuusisto & Corigliano - Vähälä / Kuusisto
BIS BIS-2020 SACD
Classical - Orchestral
KUUSISTO, Jaakko (b. 1974): Leika for symphony orchestra, Op. 24 (2010); Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 28 (2011–12)
CORIGLIANO, John (b. 1938): Concerto for Violin and Orchestra ‘The Red Violin’ (2003)
Elina Vähälä (violin)
Lahti Symphony Orchestra
Jaakko Kuusisto (conductor)
John Corigliano's violin concerto 'The Red Violin' originated as the score to a film about a violin by one of the Old Italian master-builders, and its journeys around the world throughout three centuries. While working on the film score, Corigliano also produced a one-movement concert version of it, which he later expanded into a full-scale concerto in four movements.
The son of a violinist, Corigliano’s aim was to write a concerto in a style his father would have wanted to play, and he has managed to do so without sacrificing any of the music's communicative qualities, or its wealth of colours, emotions and atmospheres. The work is coupled here with a concerto of a similar broad appeal, composed by Jaakko Kuusisto, who is a highly respected violinist in his own right, as well as conductor.
In his liner notes, Kuusisto recounts how he had toyed with the idea of writing a violin concerto for several years, but that the project only came into fruition after a commission from his colleague Elina Vähälä, and the liberating prospect of composing a work for another performer than himself.
Appearing for the first time on BIS, the acclaimed violinist Elina Vähäla has a wide-ranging career, both geographically and in terms of repertoire. She made her début at the age of twelve, performing as a soloist with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, which lends her spirited support on the present disc, and also performs the orchestral piece Leika.
Using the Icelandic word for ‘play’ as its title, Kuusisto’s composition displays a playfulness and wealth of colours that makes it a perfect curtain raiser for this appealing disc.
Review by Mark Novak - January 11, 2014
Choose any era of classical music and you will find a prevailing style that the majority of composers hew to in an effort to gain popularity. In the “classical” era, it was Haydn and then Mozart who were the paragons of the prevailing style followed by hundreds of other composers vying for a place in the repertoire to a greater or lesser extent. Beethoven began composing in that milieu but refused to be contained by it, ushering in the “romantic” era with a vengeance. Impressionists like Debussy brought refulgent chromaticism to the table, expanding tonality to its limits. And then came the so-called second Viennese school of composers, led by Schoenberg, who deemed it necessary to do away with conventional thinking about tonality in music for the 12-tone scale and further, purely atonal pieces which, if not popular with the public in general, was all the rage in academic circles for many decades. If you were a composer writing tonally-based music in the early part of the twentieth century, your music was generally shunned and rejected by the academic elites as being old fashioned despite its popularity with the public (think Rachmaninov as a prime example). But, despite their best efforts to move classical music into atonal turf, the listening public has been reluctant to follow. For me, the vast majority of 12-tone and atonal music lacks one element that I think is essential in music: beauty.
Fast forward to today. The second Viennese approach has been largely rejected by music lovers and many composers have returned to tonally-based composition, though in a style that Mozart would not recognize. So much of what we call contemporary classical music is in a highly chromatic style that flows from “sturm und drang” to ethereal serenity and back again until, well, until the piece ends. For me, there is little to distinguish such composers from one another. I will often listen to a new piece and come away saying, “that was certainly interesting” but finding the work to be unmemorable and, frankly, not very likeable. It’s very rare for me to think that anything written in the last 30 years will be around in concert halls in 50 years’ time. But that’s just me.
Which brings us to the present SACD. Jaakko Kuusisto (born 1974) has a busy musical life being primarily known as a violinist but also as a conductor and composer. Born to a composing father (IIkka) and having a violinist brother (Pekka), Jaakko has composed a handful of compositions of which two are featured on this BIS release. The compositional style is that of today’s era – highly chromatic yet anchored to tonality. So, is there anything about this music that sets it apart from the multitude of other works in this style that is worth your attention? I think there is. This well filled disc (77 minutes) opens with what I would call a tone poem titled Leika (the Icelandic word for “child’s play”) and the material is based on an earlier chamber work for piano, violin, cello and clarinet. The theme of playfulness is apparent throughout the piece with clarinet and harp as featured instruments. Its 11+ minutes pass by quickly though there is not much in the way of truly memorable music here. The Lahti orchestra, under Kuusisto’s baton, perform admirably and the sound is terrific.
Kuusisto’s violin concerto was written in collaboration with and dedicated to the present soloist, Elina Vahala. It is a 2012 composition and is worthy of the genre. Here, Kuusisto adopts conventional concerto form with three movements, the first two being played attacca. One unusual aspect of the piece is that it opens with the violin cadenza. The players all give their best effort to conveying the music. Vahala is authoritative in the solo part and the orchestra performs flawlessly. Is it music that will endure in fifty years? Probably not, but still it is a very interesting piece that contains both excitement and beauty. It is most definitely worth a listen in this extremely well-recorded rendition.
Lastly, we have John Corigliano’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra which is derived from his film score for The Red Violin. Much like Kuusisto’s concerto, this is in the highly chromatic style of the day. ArkivMusic lists two other competing performances (both on RBCD) which is somewhat remarkable for a modern concerto. Not having heard either of those versions, I cannot compare and contrast but suffice it to say that this performance is highly effective. Soloist Vahala displays her enormous chops throughout, playing with a beautiful tone where called for and digging into the strings as required. This coupling is really quite perfect for the Kuusisto concerto as both works share in the same modern era style. Is it a work that will remain in the repertoire 50 years from now? Maybe, maybe not. Is it worth hearing? Yes, it is.
Sonically this SACD is fantastic. Sourced from a 96 kHz/24 bit pcm master and engineered by Fabian Frank, the sound captured in the Sibelius Hall in Lahti, Finland is magnificent. A near perfect blend of direct and hall sound allows every detail to emerge in natural tonal splendor. The very highest marks here!
I am happy to have this well performed and excellently recorded SACD in my collection. I do think it is worth your time to purchase and listen. But, in the end, is the music itself timeless? Not really.
Copyright © 2014 Mark Novak and HRAudio.net
Review by John Miller - January 5, 2015
"The Red Violin" - an intriguing issue title from the BIS production team! It refers to Corigliano's violin concerto being based on his score for a film of that name, of which more later. The link between Corigliano's (1997-2003) and Kuuisto's (2011-2012) violin concertos is Elina Vähälä (b. 1975), now one of the most sought-after instrumentalists on the international music scene. She made her début with the Lahti Orchestra at the age of 12 and in 2012 gave the première of Kuusisto's Violin Concerto, which he dedicated to her. She also introduced the Corigliano concerto to the Nordic region.
The versatile Jaako Kuusisto is very well-known to the Lahti Orchestra; their leader from 1998 to 2012; , he also conducted, played solos, arranged and wrote music. As a fine violinist, it was almost inevitable that he would write a new violin concerto. Its style is essentially tonal and very lyrical, albeit with carefully timed dissonances which appear in moments of drama or stress.
Kuusisto’s familiarity with Elina Vähälä’s musicianship encouraged him to make the most of the violin’s best aspects, while maintaining many features of a classical concerto. Thus there are three movements in fast-slow-fast order (although the first and second movements are continuous), and the coda of the first movement is placed startlingly at the very beginning of the work. The violinist’s virtuosic introduction is inward and self-expressing but reveals the thematic and rhythmic elements of the movement before the orchestra steps in abruptly and motorically, bursting out with contrasting, many-coloured statements. References to Sibelius are notable, especially when the horns sound a pseudo-fanfare. The orchestration is dazzling, with a range of novel and beautiful or psychologically pointed combinations of instruments in a series of rich crescendos. Notably, the winds play repeated swirling upward scales like hands reaching up to caress the violin’s musing melody, a texture first quoted on the violin in the initial cadenza and appearing in each movement as a subtle, persuasive thread which helps bind the work as a whole. Vähälä’s affinity for, and love of, this music produces playing of extraordinary precision in technique and expression.
The Lento second movement continues from the nocturne-like coda of the preceding movement. It reveals a mysterious cool landscape, with a yearning violin solo over a deep bed of orchestral sound, passing into sweet arabesques. However, dark shadows begin to override the lyricism until a huge climax, which suddenly halts, leaving the music in a stunned hush, with only the rising swirls of the wood wind scale motif fading away.
Movement three is a scherzo powered by unstoppable energy; the violinist hardly rests for a moment, and a rhythmic playful mode is enhanced by offbeat clapping wood blocks. The central section features a sensual swelling calmness which is decorated once again by the wind’s upwards scales. More dances follow, elegant and delicate, before the nervous energy is halted by a tam-tam crash, followed by a sprint for conclusion. Wonderful playing here, by orchestra and soloist, effortlessly guided by Kuusisto with his deep knowledge both of composition and players.
Comparing the atmospheric and often ethereal caste of Kuusisto’s concerto to the down-to-earth one from Corigliano makes an intriguing programme contrast. Corigliano was employed to write the score for ‘The Red Violin’, a story which spans three centuries of a haunted violin in its journeys through time and space. He aimed to produce music which his father (a violinist in the New York Philharmonic as well as a soloist) would have appreciated. Red Violin is dedicated to his parental memory.
The film score emerged as a Baroque chaconne, a repeated pattern of chords which would hold the rest of the piece together, supporting character themes such as Anna’s (an intense melody representing the violin builder’s doomed wife) and a series of virtuoso episodes for the violin. While the film scoring was in progress, Corigliano composed a 17 minute concert work for orchestra and violin based on the chaconne material which was premièred by Joshua Bell in San Francisco. This piece then was joined to three other movements, ‘Pianissimo Scherzo’, ‘Andante flautando’ and ‘Accelerando Finale’ to make the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra with the subtitle ‘The Red Violin’.
Elina Vähälä attacks this new piece with power and confidence, responding to the emotions and drama of the first movement, artfully despatching every piece of virtuoso and lyric splendour which Corigliano puts before her. The orchestra too responds magnificently, even with its surprising singing by the players not playing wind instruments at the movement’s first climax. After the ghostly Scherzo, strings render deep sadness and tenderness, upon which the solo violin plays an intense recitative which passes into a lullaby-like theme, played with ‘flautando’ or flute-like tone (indeed the violin plays a duet with the alto flute). Corigliano’s notes call the last movement “a rollicking race”, between orchestra and soloist, and so it is – rude, dissonant and chaotic. The bass drum and tam-tam are clearly reproduced, but a change to quiet, pastoral woodwind with a sweet violin tune gives rest for a while, but this ends in a wild cadenza above syncopated rhythms from the lower instruments. There is a return to the first movement Chaconne and the violin concerto completes its score.
As a “filler”, this disc begins with a first recording of a new work by Kuusisto; “Leika” (‘child’s play’ in Icelandic). It is a colourful tone poem, beginning with a bright, tumultuous opening, which settles into very soft magical whirlings of wind and strings with harp and glockenspiel under rhapsodically beautiful long-breathed lines from the solo violin. Some of this reminded me of Vaughan Williams’s pastoralism and Mahler’s melodic style. but the lyricism is blown away again by an ebulliently playful and restless orchestra. A sleepy end for the notional “child” brings Night from clarinets and harp. This is a splendid and entertaining piece which should find its way to concert platforms as fast as possible.
Given a detailed recording of BIS’s best from the Sibelius Hall in Lahti, a venue very well known by the BIS engineers, this is a remarkable effort from all concerned, especially in multichannel. Even if you tend to avoid contemporary music, don’t miss this immaculately prepared and attractive album. Should you like violin concertos by Sibelius, Prokofiev or Shostakovich, the Red Violin disc begs to be in your collection. Kuusisto and Corigliano have proved that violin concertos are alive and thriving in the 21st Century!
Copyright © 2015 John Miller and HRAudio.net