The music of Scottish late-Romantic Sir Alexander Mackenzie is now becoming much better known thanks to the earlier Hyperion recording of his orchestral music, the reception of which has had the critics scratching their heads wondering why such attractive music has remained neglected for so long. 'Another hugely enjoyable Hyperion rescue act' was how Gramophone received this record, issued a year ago.
This new CD presents first recordings of two of Mackenzie's concerted works for violin, the suite Pibroch also being scored for violin and orchestra. The word 'pibroch' is taken from bagpipe music where it denotes a classical style (usually in variation form) rather than the more usual 'strathspey and reel' type of dance music associated with the instrument. The Concerto, written for Sarasate and much played by him, dates from 1885; Pibroch from four years later.
The violin always played a significant role in the life of the Scottish composer Sir Alexander Campbell Mackenzie (1847–1935). His father, Alexander Mackenzie (1819– 1857), was the principal violinist and leader of the band at the Theatre Royal in Edinburgh and was keen for his eldest son to follow in his footsteps. He arranged for the young Alexander to study music abroad in Schwarzburg-Sondershausen, Germany, playing second violin in the ducal orchestra and benefiting from his exposure to some of the most advanced music of the day in the scores of Wagner and Liszt. On his return to Britain Mackenzie entered the Royal Academy of Music as a pupil of Prosper Sainton, the French violinist, gaining the precious King’s Scholarship. He also took lessons in harmony and piano, but it had always been Mackenzie’s ambition to study under Sainton, formerly his father’s tutor. A short career as a teacher in Edinburgh followed his study at the RAM, and he used his spare time to play in chamber music ensembles (which often premiered his early mature works) and to lead orchestras in both Edinburgh and Glasgow. Mackenzie did not become a full-time professional violinist, preferring instead to turn his hand to composition, but he never forgot his affection for the instrument.
Mackenzie began work on his Violin Concerto in C sharp minor Op 32 in the middle of June 1884 while still resident in Tuscany at the castle of Borgo alla Collina, Casentino, not far from Florence. This was a period of intense creativity in Mackenzie’s career. He had left his teaching practice in Edinburgh on doctor’s orders, deciding to live abroad and devote his time to composition. Most of his mature works date from this Florentine period. The Violin Concerto was written as the result of a commission from the Birmingham Festival of 1885. He had originally been asked to supply a choral piece but work on his oratorio The Rose of Sharon for the 1884 Norwich Festival prevented him from consenting to such an undertaking. At the same time he was also engaged in writing the first act of his second grand opera, The Troubadour, commissioned by the Carl Rosa Opera Company for their 1886 season. The opportunity to work on a musical project such as a concerto alone and without a librettist absolved Mackenzie of the usual worry he felt when dealing with collaborators in his dramatic and choral works. Also, much of his early reputation rested not on his choral and operatic output but rather on his orchestral studies such as the two Scotch Rhapsodies (1879 and 1880) and the orchestral ballad La belle dame sans merci (1883).
Although the concerto took six months to complete, Mackenzie sketched the first two movements within the first month. The third movement, however, gave him the most problems and further interruptions slowed the completion of the concerto in full score. In October 1884 he visited England to be present at the production of The Rose of Sharon in Norwich, a work which enjoyed great critical success and proved to be a major turning point in his career. The pressure of writing the Violin Concerto was exacerbated by the worry of securing a soloist to premiere the work in Birmingham. In the first instance Mackenzie wrote to Joseph Joachim in November 1884, but he did not receive an immediate reply. After a few weeks, the composer sent a second letter accompanied by copies of the first two movements, also quoting the theme of the Finale which he promised to send a week later, though this promise seemed very optimistic. ‘I am likely to be quite some time over the Finale’, complained Mackenzie at the start of 1885 in a letter to Alfred Littleton, the publishing manager at Novello (who later published the concerto). Although the composer foresaw problems in revising the Finale once the sketch had been completed, the first two movements had already undergone such changes as were necessary. Taking pride in his work on the completed sections, Mackenzie noted: ‘I fancy the first movement, although not enormously so, will be found quite difficult enough when it is played broadly—it is I should say quite as difficult as Bruch’s much-played Concerto [No 1 in G minor].’
In the end Joachim did not consent to play the work, although it is difficult to know why this was. Mackenzie notes that Joachim was in the process of going through a divorce which may have preoccupied him, but the violinist procrastinated for a remarkably long time before delivering his decision. However, a few years earlier Joachim had treated Dvorák in a similar manner, keeping the manuscript of his A minor Concerto (1879) for over two years before telling the composer that he would not play it and thus delaying the premiere of the work until 1883. Joachim’s decision must have dented Mackenzie’s confidence and also tried his patience, since he still had to find another violinist to premiere the work with only five months remaining before the Birmingham performance. ‘I have never expected Joachim to play the Concerto therefore it is no disappointment to me’, wrote Mackenzie to Littleton, trying to conceal his indignation after he had received the violinist’s reply. Quite probably Mackenzie had depended on his friendship with Joachim to secure the performance of the Violin Concerto at Birmingham. It is perhaps somewhat ironic therefore that Pablo de Sarasate, with whom he was completely unacquainted, should have agreed to play the work without hesitation and with little time to spare before the Festival in August. As a result the concerto which might have borne Joachim’s name was instead dedicated to Sarasate.
The nineteenth century had a growing preoccupation with the cult of the instrumental virtuoso. Both the Austro-Hungarian Joseph Joachim (1831–1907) and the Spaniard Pablo Martín Melitón de Sarasate y Navascuéz (1844–1908, less formally known in later years as Pablo de Sarasate) were prime exponents of different schools of violin playing (the German and the French respectively). Himself a composer and author of a violin concerto (the ‘Hungarian’ Concerto Op 11 of 1861), Joachim favoured a classical approach to the genre that had been spearheaded by Brahms. Indeed, as if to underline the aesthetic consensus between the two men, Brahms composed his Violin Concerto in D major Op 77 for Joachim in 1878. In general Joachim’s style of playing favoured a more cerebral stance that eschewed mere virtuoso display. It is no surprise, for example, that for his encores he preferred to play Bach rather than traditional showpieces. On the other hand, Sarasate favoured technical fireworks and glorious melodic lines which would best exhibit his perfect intonation and pure, sweet tone. As a young man he trained at the Paris Conservatoire, winning the premier prix in violin at the age of seventeen, and considered himself to be more of a Frenchman than a Spaniard, though he never lost his love for his native town, Pamplona. A large amount of concerted violin music was written for Sarasate to perform on his subsequent concert tours both in Europe and the Americas, including works by Saint-Saëns (Concertos Nos 1 and 3 of 1863 and 1880, and the Introduction and Rondo capriccioso of 1863), Bruch (Concerto No 2 of 1877 and the Scottish Fantasy of 1880) and Lalo (Concerto in F major of 1872 and the Symphonie espagnole of 1873). Sarasate’s approach to the genre of the violin concerto was that of a man whose instinctive musicianship outweighed all other considerations, allowing, as Mackenzie noted, his ‘natural ease and grace, without a trace of self-consciousness or affectation’ to shine through. Mackenzie’s concerto presents a fusion of both French and German schools of violin playing. Although certain Germanic elements of harmony and form are evident (Mackenzie had Joachim in mind during the work’s conception), there is also something more technically extrovert in the music that clearly emanates from the sensibility of the French school, which would have appealed greatly to Sarasate.
In the first movement, it is possible to see Mackenzie’s idiomatic and unusual handling of traditional sonata form. After the introduction of a dark and brooding theme in the home key of C sharp minor, the music moves to the relative key of E major for a broader second subject group. With the conclusion of the exposition, Mackenzie embarks upon a cadenza for the violin instead of the customary development. This unconventional process is typical of Mackenzie’s interpretation of the sonata principle which can be observed in other works such as the later Scottish Concerto for piano of 1897 (recorded on). The idea of a central cadenza for the soloist finds a precedent in Mendelssohn’s famous Violin Concerto in E minor (1844), although in that instance Mendelssohn does use a conventional development section beforehand. Mackenzie’s uncomplicated structure gives the movement a conciseness and lack of discursiveness that may have appealed more directly to the extrovert Sarasate than to the cerebral Joachim, possibly explaining the latter’s lack of affinity with the work.
The Largo is a lyrical ternary movement in A major which concentrates on questions and answers between the orchestra and the soloist, giving the latter ample opportunity for the expansion and decoration of motifs. Rather than present the soloist with the hazardous, not to say unidiomatic, key of C sharp major for the Finale, Mackenzie opted for E major. The fact that the movement is couched in the relative major creates a sense of unusual exuberance, one that is heightened through its juxtaposition with the slow movement in A major. Following in the tradition of the Brahms Violin Concerto, where Hungarian dance rhythms are employed in the last movement, Mackenzie’s Finale is based on the Polish dance, the krakowiak (as identified by Dr John Purser). After a short orchestral introduction the violin plays the main theme, with its distinctive syncopated krakowiak rhythm in the key of E major, which returns at intervals throughout the movement.
Mackenzie was pleased that Sarasate agreed to premiere the work in Birmingham ‘without any previous personal knowledge of me’. He described the first run-through of the work with the Spaniard:
‘Je suis myope’ was his excuse for propping up the manuscript on the mantelpiece while I took my seat at the other end of the room. Nevertheless his short-sightedness did not prevent him either from dealing easily with the technical difficulties or from entering into the spirit of the piece a prima vista […] After the final chord there followed—for me—a somewhat embarrassing silence. Then he held out his hand, remarking, to my great relief, ‘Je n’ai rien à dire, rejouons-le encore’, from which I was shrewd enough to gather that he had expected to have a great deal to say.
The concerto was premiered at the Birmingham Festival on the evening of 26 August 1885 conducted by the composer. The work was well received by the reviewer in The Musical Times who noted the ‘magnificent playing of Señor Sarasate’ and the ‘warmest marks of approbation’ given to Mackenzie. The composer notes in his autobiography that to this event ‘I owe the beginning of a friendship which lasted until his death’.
The suite Pibroch for violin and orchestra, Op 42, followed some four years after the Violin Concerto and was written at the request of Sarasate for inclusion in the Leeds Festival programme of 1889. Appropriately, the work was completed on the composer’s native soil while he spent his summer vacation in Braemar during August 1889. He finished scoring the suite in just over ten days during the middle of his stay, having probably sketched the music beforehand. Writing from his Scottish holiday retreat to Nicholas Kilburn, a friend and choral director from North East England, on 16 August 1889 Mackenzie explained:
I have been here since the 1st August, enjoying the damp, cold weather and scoring a new violin piece for Sarasate in the mornings. I have just finished it ten minutes ago however, so another opus (good or bad) goes out into this world of strife. It is to come out at the Leeds Fest. but I don’t anticipate success there, as it is a Scottish effusion and likely at first at least to be mis-understanded [sic] of the people: now especially the Leeds people.
The suite may be grouped with other Scottish works by Mackenzie such as the Rhapsodie écossaise (1879), the Scotch Rhapsody No 2 ‘Burns’ (1880, recorded on), the Scottish Concerto (1897) and other smaller works whose musical idiom is derived from the use of traditional Scottish melodies. The first movement, as its title ‘Rhapsody’ suggests, has a very free structure and includes quasi-improvisational writing for the soloist with scant orchestral accompaniment. With its looseness of metre the violin figuration during this section gives the listener the feeling of an extended cadenza, although there are two discernible themes played by both soloist and orchestra which vie for attention between the elaborate cadenza-like episodes. In atmosphere it is very similar to the first movement of Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy Op 46 (1880), also written for Sarasate; indeed this and Pibroch could be considered very much as companion works.
The work’s relationship to pibroch music is shown in the second movement, ‘Caprice’. Pibroch (Scottish Gaelic ‘piobaireachd’, meaning ‘pipe music’) is often considered to be the ‘classical’ music of the Scottish bagpipe repertory, as distinct from dance music such as reels and strathspeys. Musically it is related to the idea of a theme and variations which increase in complexity as the set progresses. The theme is called the ‘urlar’ (meaning ‘ground’ in Gaelic) and is often played later in the piece to remind listeners of the basis of the pibroch. On the pipes the variations are made through the inclusion of ‘cuttings’ or ornaments between notes following formulas taken from the pibroch tradition. ‘Cuttings’ are the only way of varying the texture and rhythmic emphasis of music played on the pipes which would otherwise have uniform attack and dynamics. The ‘Caprice’ is a loose set of nine variations on the Scottish melody Three Guid Fellows combined with an orchestral introduction and smaller interludes. Between the sixth and seventh variations a more lyrical original melody appears, which is later combined with the main theme in the elaborate coda to the movement. It is linked by the soloist to the final ‘Dance’ which also uses variation techniques, though to a lesser extent than the preceding movement. The main theme of the ‘Dance’ is based on Leslies Lilt, a melody from the seventeenth-century Skene Manuscript, which is combined later with another theme in the relative minor. After several variations of the material and abrupt changes of tempo, these melodies propel the music towards the frantic Presto coda.
Sarasate is known to have thought highly of Mackenzie’s Violin Concerto and Pibroch and used to play them frequently on his concert tours. The friendship between the two blossomed in the following years and after the introduction of Pibroch in Leeds Mackenzie dedicated another Scottish work to Sarasate, the Highland Ballad Op 47 No 1 (1893). The two men kept in contact until Sarasate’s death and Mackenzie gave his own personal tribute to the man in a short article for The Musical Times in November 1908.
Duncan Barker © 1998