ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK (1841 – 1904): Violin Concerto in A minor, Opus 53 and ARAM KHACHATURIAN (1903 – 1978): Violin Concerto in D minor – Rachel Barton Pine, violin; Royal Scottish National Orchestra; Teddy Abrams, conductor [Recorded at RSNO Centre, Glasgow, Scotland, UK, 21 – 22 August 2018; Avie Records AV2411; 1 CD, 73:11; Available from Avie Records, Naxos Direct, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]
Chronicles of recording Classical Music and opera brim with laments for missed opportunities and celebrations of serendipitous happenstances. Regret that Jussi Björling did not sing the rôle of Riccardo on the earlier of Sir Georg Solti’s two studio recordings of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera for Decca is mitigated by appreciation of the superb performance of the part by Carlo Bergonzi of which the set ultimately boasted. In a similar vein, there is the opera-worthy tale of American soprano Eleanor Steber, like Björling an elegant artist with an unfortunate penchant for overindulgent imbibing, arriving at a studio session at which she was scheduled to record Mozart arias, declaring that her mood was incompatible with Mozart, substituting the heroine’s aria ‘Depuis le jour’ from Gustave Charpentier’s Louise, and extemporaneously recording what many listeners continue to regard as the definitive account of the aria on disc. In the whirlwind, competitive world of Classical Music, collisions of the plethora of measurable and intangible effects of personalities and logistics are inevitable. It is rare that unforeseen circumstances yield results of the quality of Bergonzi’s Decca Riccardo and Steber’s ‘Depuis le jour,’ but occurrences such as these are rightly coveted by music lovers.
The fortuitous scheduling conflict that engendered this noteworthy Avie Records recording of Violin Concerti by Antonín Dvořák and Aram Khachaturian provides another compelling reason for gratitude to whichever cosmic forces govern such phenomena. Initially scheduled to record other works with a different conductor, violinist Rachel Barton Pine seized the opportunity presented by an eleventh-hour problem with the intended conductor’s availability to revisit music with which she has been acquainted since the dawn of her career. In her scholarly but engagingly personal essay accompanying this release, Barton Pine reminisces about learning the Dvořák and Khachaturian Concerti at the age of fifteen.
It is not difficult to imagine Mozart or Mendelssohn undertaking the study of such demanding music in adolescence, but this degree of conscientiousness is at odds with perceptions of modern youth. Barton Pine defies many of today’s trends in approaching a career as a violin soloist, however, honoring the legacies of violinists like Nathan Milstein and Arthur Grumiaux by allying comprehensive knowledge of the most popular concerti with explorations of a vast array of chamber music, lesser-known concert works, and new pieces. With an artist of Barton Pine’s adventurousness, the near-spontaneous decision to record the Dvořák and Khachaturian Concerti is perhaps a critical component of the immediacy of her playing of this music.
Recorded in a natural, resonant acoustic in which not even the violin’s highest tones are distorted, the 1742 Guarneri ‘del Gesù’ violin, Dominique Pecatte bow, and Thomastik-Infeld Vision Titanium Solo strings employed by Barton Pine are conduits for uncommon, often revelatory interpretive acuity. [Recently hearing her performance of music by Johann Sebastian Bach at the National Gallery of Art, where the program included a majestic but mesmerizingly intimate traversal of the fourth of Bach’s Partitas for solo violin alongside Sonatas partnering her with harpsichordist Jory Vinikour, confirmed that the violinist’s artistic perspicacity is limited by neither repertoire nor the instrument at her disposal, the Bach pieces having been played on a Nicolò Gagliano violin dating from 1770.] The expressivity of her playing is accentuated by the sympathetic conducting of Teddy Abrams, who receives from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra playing characterized by undeviating technical mastery, rhythmic precision, and well-blended ensemble.
His 2014 appointment as Music Director of The Louisville Orchestra making him America’s youngest principal conductor of a prominent symphonic ensemble, Abrams conducts these works by Dvořák and Khachaturian with convention-flouting pragmatism that complements Barton Pine’s genre-bending aesthetic. The latent Romanticism of Dvořák’s music and the idiosyncratic accents of Khachaturian’s artistic language are omnipresent in the orchestra’s playing, but these are not performances in which choices of tempo, dynamic contrasts, and subtleties of phrasing unimaginatively adhere to traditions.
Abrams’s decisions are commendably faithful to the composers’ scores, indicating an atypical trust in the music’s capacity to advance the best answers to interpretive questions. The rapport among conductor, soloist, and orchestra audible in their recorded efforts is evidence of a shared dedication neither to recreating established interpretations of these pieces nor to consciously creating new ones but to rediscovering the authentic, sometimes ignored or marginalized voices of the composers. It is regrettable that there is novelty in fidelity to the composers’ instructions in this repertoire, but these performances assert how strikingly original faithful service to the music can sound.
Composed in 1879, following an encounter with the celebrated violinist Joseph Joachim, who never performed the piece, and premièred in Prague in 1883 by František Ondřiček, a successful composer in his own right, Dvořák’s Opus 53 Violin Concerto had by the turn of the Twentieth Century claimed a permanent, prominent place in the violin concerto repertoire. Though the writing for the soloist recalls aspects of Brahms’s and Tchaikovsky’s violin concerti, both of which were completed in 1878, the music for the orchestra in the opening Allegro ma non troppo movement of the Dvořák Concerto discloses a stylistic pedigree with close ties to Beethoven’s Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth Symphonies. Virtuosity is demanded of and here achieved by the orchestra, not least in the movement’s most rhapsodic passages, but it is the deceptively extemporaneous character of Barton Pine’s playing that lifts the music off of the page. In her performances of both of the Concerti on this disc, the violinist’s execution of double stops is superb, her intonation accurate and the paired notes impeccably balanced.
Emerging without pause from an unexpected modification of the first movement’s thematic recapitulation, the central Adagio ma non troppo movement of the Dvořák Concerto evokes the rustic elegance of the Czech folk music that the composer so loved and endeavored to preserve. Her judicious use of vibrato fostering tonal production that emphasizes the warmth of the music and that of the timbre of the Guarneri ‘del Gesú’ violin, Barton Pine draws from the instrument sounds that impart Dvořák’s great affection for the humor and humility of the Czech people. A hallmark of the soloist’s part in the Concerto’s Allegro gracioso ma non troppo finale is the use of repetitive figurations that anticipate the prominence of ostinati in Twentieth-Century music. In Dvořák’s handling, this device functions much like a ground bass in Baroque music, providing the movement’s bustling momentum. Abrams and the RSNO respond to the vigor of Barton Pine’s playing with their own verve. This is an exuberant reading of the Concerto, but the bleaker moods that lurk within the music are not neglected. Above all, this is a superlatively-played performance that illuminates the composer’s ingenuity rather than the performers’ egos.
The Armenian-born Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto was a product of an idyllic sylvan retreat during which the composer’s creative impulses were fueled by the inspiration of nature. Written for and premièred in 1940 by famed violinist David Oistrakh, whose cadenza in the first movement Barton Pine plays—dazzlingly—in this performance [Khachaturian preferred it to his own cadenza, as well], the Concerto was honored in its own time but tainted in short-sighted Twenty-First-Century assessments by being awarded a Stalin Prize by the Soviet Union. Like Dvořák, Khachaturian was inevitably affected by the politics of his time, but he, too, felt profound love for the folk music of his homeland. The innovative rhythms and pungent harmonies that distinguish Khachaturian’s works from those of his contemporaries are integral components of his Violin Concerto, but, perhaps because of the tranquil surroundings of its genesis, this music also possesses episodes of spellbinding emotional sincerity.
In her introductory notes, Barton Pine relates that her fondness for the Khachaturian Concerto began with her recognition of the kinship between Khachaturian’s assertive style and the heavy metal music that she enjoys. Had Steppenwolf or Iron Maiden commissioned a concerto for metal band, they might have turned to Khachaturian, and the Allegro con fermezza movement of his Violin Concerto could have been adapted to accommodate guitar riffs and cacophonous percussion. Barton Pine imposes nothing upon the music, her playing revealing only what she finds in the score, but it is unlikely that any other violinist’s performance of the movement has ‘rocked’ as exhilaratingly as hers. This is overtly elaborate music, tailored to Oistrakh’s abilities, but the playing of Barton Pine and her colleagues is never ostentatious.
Listeners whose familiarity with Khachaturian’s music is limited to frequently-heard pieces like excerpts from his 1942 ballet score Gayane may be surprised by the sentimentality of the Violin Concerto’s Andante sostenuto movement. Abrams’s cogent pacing and the orchestra’s thoughtful playing heighten the impact of Barton Pine’s unpretentious lyricism. This violinist understands that saccharine over-emoting is contrary to the spirit and structure of Khachaturian’s music and phrases accordingly. Building upon this welcome restraint, she holds nothing back in her performance of the Concerto’s Allegro vivace conclusion. Undertaking a performance or recording of this music without certainty of one’s capacity to play it properly is unimaginable, but the exceptional caliber of Barton Pine’s technique is no less astounding for being expected. Fantastic merely as a performance of a fascinating piece, her traversal of the Khachaturian Concerto is invaluable as a delivery of the score from the confines of stodgy concepts of how and by whom ‘serious music’ should be composed, performed, and enjoyed.
For all of its much-promoted claims of increased diversity and accessibility, Classical Music is more exclusive now than ever before in its storied history. There are more performances of more works in more places, and the careers of composers and musicians are no longer sustained by aristocratic patronage. There is hunger for the comfort and unity that music can foster, but there are self-proclaimed guardians of the temple of art who would rather starve those who seek fulfillment rather than relinquish their fiercely-defended grip on standards that in some instances are no longer tenable.
Like Benny Goodman, Rachel Barton Pine is an artist for whom distinctions of musical genres are not insurmountable boundaries but points of departure for journeys that connect people in spite of the differences that divide them. The performances of Violin Concerti by Antonín Dvořák and Aram Khachaturian on this disc are invitations to listeners, whether they are most comfortable in concert halls or mosh pits, to experience music on their own terms. By any standard, Barton Pine here enriches the discography with perceptive, pulse-quickening performances of two of the great concerti for her instrument. Moreover, these are performances that dispel the myths that greatness expired with artists of the past and that the recognition of greatness among today’s artists somehow lessens that of their forebears.