ADAMS; HARRIS Violin Concertos
John Adams coined the term ‘hypermelody’ to describe the solo part of his 1993 Violin Concerto, where ‘the violin spins one long phrase after another without stop’. This ‘implacably melodic’ character is arguably the work’s main attraction as well as its primary difficulty. For the soloist, of course, Adams’s Concerto is a tour de force. Beyond the simple issue of stamina, it requires mastering a long thread of irregular patterns, knotted with double- and triple-stops, all of which must give the impression of an unbroken ‘singing line’. For the listener, the challenge is following this thread as it unspools, for, as beguilingly lyrical as much of the music is, the syntax is idiosyncratic, and there are precious few moments of respite. It’s rather like reading Joyce when one is accustomed to, say, James.
By my count, there have been five recordings of Adams’s Concerto before this one – all eminently recommendable. Tamsin Waley-Cohen’s new account doesn’t make the choice any easier, for her interpretation is technically beyond reproach and musically imaginative. What makes this recording indispensible is the coupling.
Roy Harris’s Violin Concerto was written for Josef Gingold and the Cleveland Orchestra. The 1949 premiere was postponed due to discrepancies between the score and orchestral parts, and the work wasn’t heard until the mid-’80s, when Gregory Fulkerson revived and recorded it (First Edition). It’s an absolutely lovely piece and remarkably similar to Adams’s in that, after a brief, proto-minimalist introduction, the violin takes wing on what might aptly be described as ‘hypermelody’. And, as with Adams’s Concerto, this melodic thread stretches continuously to the end. Harris’s folk-flavoured, modal-tinged style falls somewhere between Hovhaness and Vaughan Williams, although the final section brings Britten’s Sea Interludes to mind.
Harris’s Concerto is a major (re-)discovery, and Waley-Cohen outclasses Fulkerson’s pioneering version in every respect. Andrew Litton and the BBC Symphony provide superb, supple support. Not to be missed.