GLASS Violin Concerto BERNSTEIN Serenade after Plato’s Symposium
Glass and Bernstein may not trip off the tongue quite as easily as Bach and Handel or Haydn and Mozart, but bringing them together here via two large-scale works for solo violin and orchestra encourages some parallels to be drawn. As composers, both successfully synthesised elements of classical and popular, high and low, developing direct and accessible musical languages that appealed to a much wider and broader listenership.
Unlike Glass, whose prolific output has been the result of a life dedicated primarily to composition, Bernstein divided his time between conducting and composing. His Serenade After Plato’s Symposium, composed in 1954, displays all the hallmarks of a composer intimately familiar not only with the orchestra’s light and shade, colours and textures, but also keenly aware of the delicate and fine-grained balance required between soloist and orchestra for a concerto to function effectively.
Based on Plato’s philosophical text, which presents different responses by seven Greek philosophers to the question ‘what is the nature of true love?’, Bernstein’s five-movement design also adopts the format of a dramatic dialogue. The first movement contrasts Phaedrus’s passionate opening remarks on love’s creative and destructive potential with Pausanias’s more playful treatment of the subject. Each philosophical approach is given a different musical character, from Eryximachus’s energetic claims that love is omniscient to Socrates and Alcibiades’ extended discussions on the physical and cerebral forms of beauty that close the work. Violinist Renaud Capuçon’s brilliantly judged performance is highly responsive to the work’s musical and philosophical nuances and especially powerful in conveying the emotional intensity of the fourth movement (‘Agathon’).
The same cannot be said about the Glass concerto. Richard Guérin’s booklet-notes refer to a remark made by the conductor Dennis Russell Davies that, in composing the concerto, the challenge of balancing a large orchestra with solo violin proved difficult for Glass. This may be true; but the composer cannot be blamed for the violin’s lack of presence and penetration in the first movement. To be sure, Capuçon’s violin soars high above a descending chaconne bass in the slow middle movement, creating a beautifully glowing sonic halo. However, a rather limp final movement lacks the drive and sharpness of Gidon Kremer’s impressive recording with Christoph von Dohnányi and the Vienna Philharmonic.