Henri Vieuxtemps (1820-81), celebrated in his lifetime as a virtuoso violinist, is remembered today (if at all) for a handful of violin concertos and salon pieces that cling to the edge of the repertoire. During his later years, however, after a stroke had destroyed his performing career, Vieuxtemps also composed two confident and idiomatic concertos for cello and orchestra—audience-friendly works characterized by big and memorable tunes, attractive if generally utilitarian orchestration, full exploitation of the solo instrument's range and enough virtuoso dazzle to keep you riveted. There's plenty of emotional variety, too: bel canto (often elaborated with extreme filigree) is played off against episodes of Sturm und Drang (the roiling drama of the finale to the Second is especially effective) and moments of high-minded nobility are played off against passages of delightful breeziness. Add to this that the works are sufficiently compact that they never outwear their welcome, and it's hard to understand why they're so seldom heard.
Granted, they are not especially adventurous works. Although the finale of the Second may remind you of the finale of the Glazunov Violin Concerto (still a quarter of a century in the future), that's a sign of Glazunov's conservatism rather than Vieuxtemps's forward thinking. This music is more Mendelssohnian than Lisztian, with clear formal outlines, predictable rythmic patterns and solidly anchored harmonies. Still that hardly explains their rarity, for within their distinctly old-fashioned limits, there's plenty of imaginative writing: I especially enjoyed the middle movement of the Second, similar in spirit to the middle movement of the Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto, where the eloquent pleadings buy the soloist try to tame the omnious rumblings of the orchestra.
The Méditation (c. 1910) by Vieuxtemps's star pupil Eugène Ysaÿe speaks in an entirely different musical idiom, conjuring up a dark post-Tristanesque world much like that in Schoenberg's Pelleas und Melisande. As both violinist and conductor, Ysaÿe was strongly committed to a wide variety of contemporary composers: he premiered the French Sonata and the Debussy Quartet, but was also an early champion of the Elgar Concerto. This progressive vision is evident in this highly wrought miniature tone poem for cello and orchestra. The harmonies are far more chromatic than those of the Vieuxtemps works, and there's far more rhythmic independence of superimposed musical lines. If the Vieuxtemps concertos are heavy on melody, the Méditation, with its frequent shifting of meters and its tonal ambiguities, is heavy on expressionist atmosphere and colour—and while Vieuxtemps's climaxes may dazzle you, Ysaÿe's, far more disturbing, are liable to crush. This is, to my ears, the masterpiece on the disc, a work of stunning beauty, imagination and depth. It certainly makes a far stronger case for Ysaÿe's contributions as a composer than does the relatively conventional Sérénade, composed at the same time but without the same concentration.
Alban Gerhardt has shown himself adept in a wide range of repertoire, both familiar and offbeat, and he brings his glowing tone and unfailing technique to bear on these scores, showing himself equally at home in the music's more sensational moments (serving up a remarkable level of detail without sacrificing a sense of line) and in its more expressive passages (his ardent performance of the middle movement of the Vieuxtemps First is especially beautiful).
The Royal Flemish Philharmonic, under Josep Caballé-Domenech, supports him well, even though a few creaky moments remind us that this is not bread-and-butter repertoire; and there are no complaints about the engineering. All in all, a welcome release.