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Hyperion Records

CDA67878 - Vieuxtemps: Violin Concertos No 1 & 2

Recording details: July 2011
deSingel, Antwerp, Belgium
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon & Dave Rowell
Release date: May 2012
DISCID: 65119907
Total duration: 75 minutes 2 seconds

'Few will be able to resist Hanslip's deliciously coquettish handling of the rondo movements of both concertos' (Gramophone)

'The acrobatics which Vieuxtemps puts her through are not just surmounted, with double-stops impeccably crafted even at speed, but are meaningfully phrased with a variety of tone and dynamics. She also finds character in the lyrical Adagio, and the more playful Rondo Finale, with its swaggering main theme … I really feel a smile coming out of the loudspeakers' (BBC Music Magazine)

The Romantic Violin Concerto
Violin Concertos No 1 & 2
Allegro moderato  [24'49]
Rondo: Allegretto  [12'18]
Allegro  [8'54]
Andante  [4'43]
Rondo: Allegro  [7'55]

Hyperion’s record of the month for May heralds a new collaboration with the brilliant young British violinist Chloë Hanslip, the former child prodigy famously signed to Warner Classics at the age of just fourteen. Here, she lends her now-mature talents to the second release in Hyperion’s overview of Vieuxtemps’ Violin Concertos and Volume 12 of the burgeoning Romantic Violin Concerto series.

Henry Vieuxtemps (1820–1881) was a French violin virtuoso who, after the death of Paganini, was widely considered to be the best violinist in Europe. Besides being a brilliant player, he was a remarkably fine composer, as demonstrated in these, his first two concertos. Alongside the memorable violin fireworks, Vieuxtemps here shows a well-argued musical sensibility that straddles both the Classical and Romantic eras as well as the ability to write gorgeous, almost operatic slow movements in the best bel canto tradition.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Widely considered the finest violinist in Europe after the death of Paganini, the Belgian Henry Vieuxtemps was born in 1820 in Verviers, not far from Liège. He had his first lessons from his father, a weaver and amateur violin-maker, and then from a renowned teacher, Lecloux-Dejonc. He made his concert debut at the age of six and toured neighbouring cities with his teacher, attracting the attention of the noted violinist–composer Charles-Auguste de Bériot in the process. Two years later he went to Brussels to study with Bériot, who introduced Vieuxtemps to Parisian audiences in 1829. After Bériot’s teaching ended in 1831, Vieuxtemps’s continuing musical education benefited from playing duets with the singer, pianist and composer Pauline García, Bériot’s sister-in-law, who although only ten years old had already studied with Liszt. After giving a series of concerts in Germany and Austria (winning praise from Robert Schumann, who heard him in Leipzig) Vieuxtemps made his London debut in 1834, where he also heard and met Paganini.

Vieuxtemps was anxious to perfect his technique and broaden his musical tastes, but he seems to have picked up a lot of his skill in composition piecemeal as he embarked on the busy, country-hopping career of a travelling virtuoso. In Vienna—where he was the first to revive Beethoven’s Violin Concerto—he took composition lessons from Simon Sechter (with whom Schubert had studied in the last months of his life), and in Paris from Antoine Reicha. At the same time he had taken care to study the techniques of instrumentation by attending as many orchestral rehearsals as he could, with score in hand. The F sharp minor concerto dates from this time. Vieuxtemps went on to visit Russia for the first time in 1837, and he toured America in 1843–4. In the latter year he married the Vienna-born pianist Josephine Eder, and in 1846 settled for some years in St Petersburg as court violinist and soloist in the Imperial Theatre as well as teaching violin at the Conservatory. He left a lasting legacy there, for he had a definite influence on the development of the Russian school of violin playing. In 1854 the leading Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick ranked Vieuxtemps together with Joseph Joachim as the two foremost violinists in the world.

After a second American tour in 1857, with the great pianist–composer Sigismond Thalberg, and further periods based successively in Brussels, Frankfurt and Paris, Vieuxtemps returned to Brussels in 1871 as professor of violin at the Brussels Conservatoire, where his most celebrated pupil was Eugène Ysaÿe. His career as a virtuoso was cut short by a stroke that affected his bowing arm, but though he was acutely frustrated by his inability to perform to his former standard, Vieuxtemps managed to resume conducting and teaching until 1879, when he resigned from the Conservatoire and joined his daughter and son-in-law in Algeria. Here he completed his last two violin concertos before his death on 6 June 1881; his body was brought back to Belgium and he was buried with honours in his home town of Verviers.

Vieuxtemps certainly deserves to be ranked among the most important composers for the violin in the mid-nineteenth century. He never indulged in sheer virtuosity for its own sake, like some of his predecessors and contemporaries. Instead in his concertos and chamber works he brought a more classical dimension to the violin repertoire in place of the technically brilliant variations and fantasies on operatic themes that were so popular with audiences (though he composed his share of these too).

The first two of his violin concertos certainly present his credentials as a composer of real substance. Their numbering reverses their chronological order and reflects the order of publication, as also shown in their opus numbers: it was a common practice in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for a work to be assigned an opus number only when it was being published. Thus the Violin Concerto No 2 in F sharp minor, Op 19, is in fact an earlier work than the Violin Concerto No 1 in E major, Op 10. Dating from 1836, the F sharp minor concerto makes a more classical (or post-classical) impression than a romantic one, and reveals clear signs of Vieuxtemps’s study of classical models—notably Mozart and Beethoven. The French violinist–composer Émile Sauret, one of the most distinguished of Vieuxtemps’s many pupils, was especially fond of this concerto: indeed it has sometimes been dubbed the ‘Sauret’ Concerto.

The Allegro first movement begins with a concise and tautly organized orchestral exposition, beginning in a stern F sharp minor and soon introducing a sinister bass motif before turning to the relative major (A major) for a mellifluous contrasting subject. A concluding third theme, in stealthy, march-like dotted rhythms, returns us to the original key and rounds off the exposition. All these elements are explored in the rest of the movement, but events do not unfold entirely along classical lines. After a pause, the violin solo enters high in its register (Vieuxtemps indicates that the entry should be attacca con molta forza) with a new and passionate theme, which is expanded into a virtuoso passage of triplet double-stopping and then repeated in varied form. Quiet woodwind then pave the way for the reappearance of the lyrical A major second subject, taken over espressivo by the violin and soon raised into the higher stratosphere; this too is extended into a passage of dazzling technical display. While this central section could certainly be described as a development, the functions of recapitulation and coda are foreshortened to provide a transition to the next movement, which follows without a break: the A major theme bursts out in the orchestra, and a quick orchestral summary of the other exposition themes, and then a modulating string passage of some pathos, lead to the second movement.

This is a B minor Andante dominated by the violin throughout. The principal theme has something of the character of an operatic aria, discreetly embellished and tender without undue sentimentality. A contrasting Poco più lento section in D major brings a warmly lulling theme, played ben sostenuto in double-stopped thirds and sixths which eventually become majestic triple stops spanning anything up to two octaves. The B minor music returns, somewhat more decorated, and the violin soars softly up to the heights as the movement closes.

The finale is a lively, capricious rondo in which Vieuxtemps really lets himself go. After a rather dramatic orchestral opening marked Allegro the violin insinuates itself into the proceedings with a repeated two-note figure before relaxing into an elegant Allegretto rondo theme which proves apt for festooning with rapidly executed ornaments and decorations. After an orchestral tutti the violin introduces a bold theme in octaves and quadruple-stopping. Contrast is found in the idea that follows this—a pathetically descending theme marked lusinghiero (‘pleading’) which, like the main rondo theme, is ripe for bravura decoration. The violin-writing becomes steadily more virtuosic as the movement progresses, and culminates in a cadenza—the only one in the concerto. The rondo theme then returns and leads into a coda of vertiginous bravura, though the ending remains in the grim F sharp minor with which the movement (and the work) began.

Vieuxtemps wrote the work which was published as his Violin Concerto No 1 in E major, Op 10, in 1840 (it also bears the title ‘Grand Concerto’); he premiered it with great success in St Petersburg that year, and subsequently performed it throughout Europe. As befits a later work, it shows some decided advances over the F sharp minor concerto. It is laid out on an expansive scale, and in fact is probably the longest and most imposing of Vieuxtemps’s concertos.

Its length is due principally to the unusually grand first movement, a huge structure lasting nearly twenty-five minutes. This begins with an orchestral exposition on a much larger scale than that of the F sharp minor concerto, presenting a veritable parade of ideas for later treatment. After the suavely melodic first theme has been quietly stated, the horns and trumpets, foreshadowing a martial character that will be manifest throughout the movement, introduce a tutti restatement of this idea, after which the woodwind etch a contrasting lyrical theme. Vieuxtemps’s handling of the orchestra throughout this concerto shows great skill. Further discussion of the opening theme (which reappears fortissimo and marked nobile, in sharp contrast to its initial appearance) and a quiet rhythmic closing figure bring the orchestral exposition to a close. As in the F sharp minor concerto, the soloist’s first entry is bold, high in the violin’s register, and decisively introduces new thematic content. The first three notes of this theme—a rising E–F#–G#, emphatically sculpting the beginning of the major scale—become an important motif in their own right. After stating another melody of its own, dolce, the violin sweetly takes over the first theme and soon makes it the basis for bravura elaboration.

All this activity is only the beginning of a very broad, generalized sonata design, full of incident and stirring orchestration as well as a hair-raising succession of pyrotechnic displays from the soloist, including multiple-stopping, octaves, simultaneously played contrapuntal lines, and rapid, florid figuration spanning the instrument’s entire range. Towards the middle of the movement, after an orchestral tutti with a long wind-down on the rhythmic motif, the violin introduces a fresh and passionate idea, Maestoso, with more than a whiff of Eastern European gypsy music. This is spun out over the rhythmic motif, which becomes an ostinato in the orchestral bass until taken over by the violin for an exciting development.

A short cadenza-like passage brings back the work’s opening subject in dreamy, meditative vein, and this can be regarded as the start of a much-varied recapitulation, culminating in a dramatic orchestral tutti which proves to be the introduction to the cadenza. Unlike the F sharp minor concerto, Vieuxtemps furnishes the E major with a substantial, fully notated cadenza—beginning with the E–F#–G# figure from the soloist’s first entry—that draws all the thematic threads together. A brief but brilliant coda brings the movement to a close.

In contrast to this huge movement, the A major Adagio is brief; in fact it is merely the introduction to the finale. It begins with seraphic strings (the passage might almost be by Grieg). The violin, dolce, embellishes a simple, sweetly sentimental melody, then gives it the full technicolour treatment of passionate octaves against rustling string tremolandi which lead straight into the rondo finale. Dotted rhythms in the orchestra introduce (and characterize) the carefree cavatina-like main theme, with which Vieuxtemps is able to have plenty of fun, also introducing a parade of colourful episodes, including a breezy march in B major. The violin is kept almost continually busy, until an orchestral tutti and an expectant pause herald the reappearance of the expressive tune from the Adagio, presented with a light pizzicato accompaniment. This moment of pleasurable nostalgia is developed into an important episode before the rondo music returns, taking on the character of a scintillating perpetuum mobile as it drives the concerto to its conclusion.

In contrast to these weighty concertos, the remaining work on this recording presents Vieuxtemps in a rather different light, as a composer of popular divertissements on national airs. Though published only posthumously, Greeting to America, Op 56, was composed for Vieuxtemps’s American tour of 1843–4. As the title suggests, the piece is in the manner of a salute from the Old World to the New: the orchestral introduction and the first violin solo are in fact based on an Italian air. A call to attention by the trumpets, however, leads to a fantasia on ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’, after which the basses introduce, and the violin enthusiastically takes up, the lively march-tune of ‘Yankee Doodle’. Vieuxtemps had in fact dealt with this well-known tune before, in his Souvenir d’Amérique, Variations burlesques sur ‘Yankee Doodle’, Op 17, but the bravura variations in the present work are not related to that earlier set. In an imposing coda, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ and ‘Yankee Doodle’ are triumphantly combined.

Calum MacDonald © 2012

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