Dutilleux & Maxwell Davies Violin Concertos

Author: 
Arnold Whittall

Dutilleux & Maxwell Davies Violin Concertos

  • Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, '(L')arbre des
  • Concerto for Violin and Orchestra
  • Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, '(L')arbre des
  • Concerto for Violin and Orchestra

This enterprising and attractive coupling is, first and foremost, a tribute to the open-minded versatility of Isaac Stern, who premiered both concertos at a stage of his career when he might be forgiven for coasting along on a tried and trusted repertoire of classical and romantic war-horses. CBS also deserve credit for releasing a record containing two substantial contemporary compositions within two years or so of their first performances.
If nothing else, these concertos demonstrate the bracing diversity of musical styles currently on display—styles to which the labels post-impressionist (Dutilleux) and post-expressionist (Maxwell Davies) have some relevance. Dutilleux, almost 20 years Davies's senior, is also the relative traditionalist of the pair. He was approaching 70 when his concerto was completed, and while the music has a youthful energy and abundance of ideas, its style is no more radical than, say, the more forward-looking compositions of Szymanowski. I enjoyed it, while feeling mildly disappointed at the absence of that intense, Bergian quality evident in some of Dutilleux's other works—notably the string quartet Ainsi la nuit, recorded by the Via Nova Quartet for Erato (STU71546, 9/85). It's the fast music in the middle of the Violin Concerto that comes closest to routine. But Stern's confident projection of the rewarding solo part, and the music's range of colour and wealth of invention, fitting a title that suggests both the luxurious proliferation of a tree's foliage and the spontaneity of dream images, do much to compensate for any weaker passages.
The Violin Concerto by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies is both more radical and more restrained. It offers fewer opportunities for the big, bold gesture, yet it's not—as its cautious Orkney premiere suggested it might be—merely evidence of the mellowing of Max, even of his degeneration into an atonal Max Bruch. His innate toughness and intensity still register, although here and there—for example, in the first movement cadenza—I did wonder whether the nature of the solo instrument, and the conventions of so much earlier virtuoso writing for it, were not getting between the composer and his most personal mode of expression. I also remain sceptical about whether 'tonality', as Davies understands it, contributes to the perceptibility and clarity of structure as significantly as the more basic formal divisions. Even so, on each hearing I've found this performance more satisfying and illuminating in its tracing of the way the music cunningly fades in and out of specifically Scottish allusions. The recordings themselves are satisfying too—the Dutilleux transferred at a higher level, in keeping with its more assertive style. Without scores, I couldn't judge how much salient orchestral detail comes across, especially in the Maxwell Davies. But Stern's sensitivity and command are unmistakable, and help to make this a strong recommendation even for collectors who normally shy away from new music.'

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