BRITTEN: Violin Concerto, op. 15. VEALE: Violin Concerto.
Lydia Mordkovitch, violinist; BBC Symphony Orchestra/Richard Hickox, cond.
Chandos CHAN9910 {DDD} TT: 69:57

Britten's concerti haven't yet attained the popularity of his other orchestral works. With Britten apparently safely enshrined in the Temple of Classics, however, performers have begun to explore the darker corners of his catalogue. The very early and surprisingly profound Double Concerto for violin, viola, and strings recently appeared on Erato 3984-25502-2, for example. Britten himself led a Decca recording of his violin concerto way back in 1970 with Mark Lubotsky as the soloist. That's the recording I had known, and I must say that it led me to seriously underestimate the work. The concerto's formal innovation emerged, but that's really the most obvious thing about the piece. Hickox and Mordkovitch better the earlier performers by miles.

Britten wrote his concerto in the late Thirties and revised it twice (both times amounted to tweak and polish) in the Fifties. There's often a political component to Britten's music—sometimes overt, sometimes buried deep—and the concerto is no exception. The first soloist, the Spanish violinist Antonio Brosa, remarked on the strong Spanish flavor of the music. Undoubtedly, Brosa knew more Spanish music than I, and Britten's recording did nothing to bring out the connection. Frankly, Brosa's remark puzzled me. Hickox and Mordkovitch hook onto this Spanish spirit, at least in the first movement, where we hear passages of deep elegy, much like the third-movement lament of Britten and Lennox Berkeley's collaborative suite Mont Juic, explicitly inspired by the Spanish Civil War. Indeed, this recording supersedes the composer's own. The formal mastery of the concerto—its unique, somewhat odd shape—strikes with an even greater force, since the performance joins it with great feeling. The first audiences and critics remarked on its wit. The finale, for example, is a massive free passacaglia, which Britten sustains for roughly fifteen minutes. One doesn't normally associate passacaglia with concerto, since the variations tend to extreme brevity. You would think that would limit the soloist's elbow-room. This is merely one surprise the composer pulls off.

Yet, while I can acknowledge the concerto's ingenuity, I'm struck far more by its intensity. The scherzo second movement (the movements are all played without a break) brings the grotesquerie of Shostakovich to mind. Britten and Shostakovich admired each other's music, but I don't know whether Britten had heard Shostakovich's scores as early as 1938, when he began the composition. Both composers share a fondness for satirical pastiche and even for the bizarre, although this last tendency shows up more obviously in Shostakovich. Then there's the common influence of Mahler. The point is, I suppose, that their mutual admiration very likely stemmed from the similarities of their artistic personalities. Despite the japes and the bravura of the work, elegy strikes the dominant note, all the more surprising in a work which has no formally-designated slow movement, further evidence of Britten's mastery of symphonic rhetoric.

Before this CD, I had never heard or read the name of John Veale, much less heard his music. Veale belonged to that "lost generation" of British composers— Alwyn, Lloyd, Arnold, Bush, Rubbra, Reizenstein, Stevens, Simpson, and so on—all British moderns committed to tonality and all pushed to the outskirts of critical notice when Sir William Glock took over musical programming for the BBC. The history, as usually told (and perpetuated to some extent by Lewis Foreman's otherwise very good liner notes), gives fodder to the anti-serial, anti-avant-gardistes who see things in terms of a dark conspiracy to stamp out the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. It seems to me a fairly naive notion. Composers go in and out of notice all the time. Far be it from me to spoil a good story or even a good conspiracy, but I have to point out that some tonal composers made out very well during this period, Britten and Tippett among them. While certain good composers suffered neglect, good composers also came to notice: Gerhard, Searle, Lutyens, Rawsthorne (a non-serialist, incidentally), Davies, and LeFanu, to name only six. I don't deny that good composers were also lost. But resources for art are scarce: it's a tough game. I actually prefer that the light of regard shifts from time to time, mainly because I don't like to see things settled from one generation to the next. It feels to me like a kind of intellectual death.

Most of the composers on the outs, including Veale, shared at least one trait other than their tendency to write tonally: they wrote in an idiom not immediately identifiable as belonging to an individual. Instead, they took personal approaches to idioms they inherited. I admit my first listen to this CD caused me to underrate Veale. Immediately following something so outstandingly individual as the Britten, Veale's concerto seemed bland and genteel, free of surprises. I found the juxtaposition more than a little cruel to Veale. However, I also listened to the Veale work all by itself, a couple of days separate from the Britten, and then it got its hooks into me. It was a simple matter of letting Veale tell his story his own way, rather than my expecting him to tell it Britten's (or even my) way.

This is a concerto of huge artistic risk. From the opening measures, Veale proclaims this a work with big ideas spread across a big canvas. The opening allegro pits soaring lines against an obsessive rhythmic idea, and it takes a while to get to the soloist's entry. The composer could so easily run out of gas or fall on his face or step across the line to pure bathos. But his step is sure, and he has mastered contrast—the movement alternately rages and broods. The rage is never far from the worry, thanks to Veale's poetic transformations of his rhythmic obsession. The idiom resembles that of Walton's first symphony, and the liner notes tell me that Veale considered Walton a major influence, although he never studied with that composer. Incidentally, Veale did study with two American masters: Sessions and Harris. Indeed, he was "possibly" Harris's only English pupil. Foreman claims there's a Harris influence on Veale's works from that time. I don't hear it here, but Veale began his concerto in the early Eighties, after about a twenty-year creative silence. Indeed, I find in the concerto far more similarity to Sessions, even though their idioms differ so much. Both are concerned with the long, singing line, even in quick passages. The long second movement opens with the violin singing a line of heartbreaking sweetness, and yet it never falls into a "real" song. He contrasts that with a more astringent idea, and the contrast—or rather the interpenetration of these moods—becomes the meat of the movement. Again, the composer pushes the movement up to, but never past, the limit of the listener's attention. The finale, a fizzy Waltonian allegro, similar in mood to the Capriccio Burlesco, begins by blowing away the rage and the nostalgia, morphing themes from the earlier movements into their joyful equivalents. But the joy is tinged with the yearning of the second movement, as recalls of that singing continually break in. Veale brings off something terrific. He always renews his enthusiasm convincingly, but the interruptions of the slower music come closer and closer together, bringing up the dramatic question of how the movement will end. I won't give it away.

Hickox and Mordkovitch become perfect champions of both concerti. As I say, they put the Britten concerto in a new, more substantial light, and they make the best case possible for Veale's music: you want to hear more of it. I think it time that I stop regarding Hickox as primarily a choral conductor. If he can widen his repertoire (and if a recording company will take a chance on letting him), he has a fair chance of becoming a successor to Barbirolli. One can fairly argue that Rattle is already that, but it doesn't hurt to have two Barbirollis. Mordkovitch has been tainted with the label "house violinist" for Chandos, but to me she just gets better and better. Certainly, she displays here a very order of musicianship indeed. Neither concerto is a walk in the park in the technique and musicality demanded. I admit she sometimes comes across as too reserved—though not here—unwilling to let 'er rip, and it may become a matter of matching her to those concerti suited to her artistic personality. I'm not sure, for example, I'd want to hear her in the Tchaikovsky or any of the Wieniawskis, for example, but I'd definitely line up to hear her Bruch, Beethoven, and Sibelius.

Chandos's sound is downright elegant.


S.G.S. (Jan. 2002)