John Adams: Violin Concerto (CD Review)

John Adams Violin Concerto

Violin Concerto – John Adams

Leila Josefowicz, violin

St. Louis Symphony, David Robertson, conductor

Nonesuch CD

Some recordings become touchstones in one’s collection. Despite there being several fine renditions out there, the 1996 Nonesuch CD of Gidon Kremer playing John Adams’ Violin Concerto (1993), with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s conducted by Kent Nagano, is an abiding favorite of mine. Now, more than twenty years later, Nonesuch has bested its own best with the release of Leila Josefowicz’s recording of the concerto with the St. Louis Symphony, conducted by David Robertson.

Josefowicz is front and center in the mix. Since the violinist plays nearly constantly in the piece, and tends to evoke the actions of the orchestra more so than one finds in traditional concertos, this seems entirely appropriate. Her rendition of the piece is filled with crisply fluent runs and fluid dynamic shifts. The first movement is appropriately dramatic in cast, the second takes on a poignancy that is most affecting, and the finale is truly a bravura showcase for the soloist. In addition to the vibrant energy of Josefowicz, under Robertson the St. Louis Orchestra gives a performance that is both dynamically potent and attentive to detail.

While repetition remains an important component of Adams’ music, the Violin Concerto is a watershed piece for the composer in that breaks out of the boundaries of post-minimalism into a more versatile gestural language than he had previously used. In addition to this change in rhythmic practice, the concerto features greater chromaticism than one had previously heard in pieces by the composer. He fluently wends his way through a variety of key centers – there are even moments where post-tonality reigns supreme over triadic writing. These facets of his writing have only blossomed in the ensuing years. However, it is pleasing to be reminded of their roots in the concerto, particularly by such a persuasive account of the piece.

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This is the label’s thirtieth CD of music by Adams; their connection to the composer dates back to the 1986 recording of Harmonielehre. On June 29th, 2018, Nonesuch will release yet another recording of music by Adams, and a particularly noteworthy one: the premiere CDs of his 2005 opera Dr. Atomic. More about that soon.

James Matheson (CD Review)

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James Matheson

Violin Concerto, String Quartet, Time Alone
Baird Dodge, violin; Chicago Symphony, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen;

Color Field Quartet

Laura Strickling, soprano; Thomas Sauer, piano

Yarlung Records

On his latest CD for Yarlung, composer James Matheson presents strong essays in both the concerto and string quartet genres. His String Quartet, played in vibrant fashion by Color Field Quartet, is filled with overlapping scales and glissandos, post-minimal ostinatos, and impressionist harmonic colors. Thus, it presents as a postmodern response both to composers such as Ravel and Debussy and more recent figures such as John Adams and Aaron Jay Kernis.

There is a similar variety of instrumental color in Matheson’s violin concerto. Its conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, is described in the liner notes as a great champion of the piece, helping to arrange for its recording (a live tape of the Chicago Symphony). The muscularly motoric violin part, played here by Baird Dodge,  is formidable. The violin soloist is required to execute limpid runs clear up into the stratosphere of the instrument’s compass. In addition to its impressive solo part, the concerto’s orchestration has a cinematic sweep that is most engaging. The second movement, Chaconne, features a gradual build by the soloist, with the part starting down near rumbling cellos and basses and concluding within striking distance of high flutes (which seem to mimic gestures from movement one in slow motion). The concerto concludes with Dance, a moto perpetuo in which the violinist faces off with a boisterous orchestra (which ends on the supertonic!).

The songs are idiomatically set, but I was left wishing for a less diffident performance than the one provided here. They were written for Kiera Duffy; perhaps we can hope that she gives them a hearing soon.

Matheson’s musical language is appealing in its variety. He is also a creative orchestrator, parsing multiple threads of activity yet always providing music with a clear surface.