Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Three Approaches to a Violin-Cello Concerto

This Friday Sony Classical will release a new CD entitled Double Concertos. The recording provides a platform for the husband-and-wife duo of cellist Jan Vogler and violinist Mira Wang. The idea of a “double” concerto for both violin and cello is best known through Johannes Brahms’ Opus 102 in A minor; and this work, composed in the summer of 1887, is the central piece on the album. It is flanked on either side by a 21st-century approach to the same genre, beginning with a single-movement concerto composed by Wolfgang Rihm in 2015 and concluding with a three-movement concerto by John Harbison composed in 2010. For all three concertos Wang and Vogler are accompanied by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Peter Oundjian. As usual, is taking pre-orders prior to the forthcoming release date.

I must confess that I have a weak spot for the Brahms concerto, because its second movement, in D major, serves up a particularly satisfying case of ambiguity. The movement is written in 3/4 time, and the pulse is established by both soloists playing (an octave apart and with accompaniment in the string section) a theme whose opening measure consists of three pairs of eighth notes. However, that measure is introduced by a slower account of its first four notes, two pairs of rising fourths. The first, A rising to D, is played only by a pair of horns. The horns are then joined by flutes, clarinets, and bassoons for the second fourth, E rising to A. In both of these introductory fourths, the second note is sustained by a fermata.

The opening measures (without the string section) of the second movement of Brahms Opus 102 concerto (from IMSLP, public domain)

Those opening measures lay the groundwork for the ambiguity. Both of them basically sound like a perfect cadence without full chords. Thus, in the first measure the tonic D is established by the A that rises to it. Then the dominant is established by a similar pattern. Put another way, in both of these intervals the first note sounds like an upbeat affirming the downbeat of the second one.

However, when the theme itself is introduced in the third measure, those roles are reversed. Both the D following the A and the A following the E are on decidedly weak beats (not even on the pulse); and that first A is now firmly established as the downbeat! Those who have listened to even a few of the many recordings of this concerto know that there is little agreement among conductors as to just how that ambiguity should be handled; and, without naming any names, I would suggest that more than a few of those conductors just muddle their way through, figuring that things will take care of themselves by the time they get to the end of the first score page.

In this context I am happy to report that Oundjian is no muddler. He knows that the ear is going to be deceived by those opening measures. However, he seems to have found just the right amount of stress to make it clear that the third measure is the one responsible for the definitive downbeat. I have no trouble fantasizing an image of Brahms’ ghost nodding in delighted approval!

I wanted to start by calling out this ambiguity because so much of the “new music” that comes our way involves whole new breeds of ambiguity that can be exploited in many different ways. In Rihm’s case that exploitation involves not only rhythm but also the very sense of progression in a rhetoric in which dissonance has been emancipated. In such a situation the idea of harmony may be abandoned in favor of thinking strictly in terms of a polyphonic fabric in which the overlay of multiple voices no longer adheres to traditional “point-against-point” rules. This is one way to approach listening to Arnold Schoenberg’s Opus 42 piano concerto (which was performed here in San Francisco this past January); and, for that matter, it also serves listening to Alban Berg’s violin concerto. Indeed, I would even go so far as to say that the Berg concerto is a bit like a ghost lingering in the shadows behind Rihm’s concerto.

Harbison’s concerto is another matter. One might say that it is inhabited by two ghosts. It was written in memory of violinist Roman Totenberg (whose students happened to include Wang). However, Totenberg’s own studies included working with George Enescu, whose work as a composer tended to draw more upon Eastern European folk styles than on the practices of harmonic progression that prevailed during the nineteenth century. Enescu’s music does not get the attention it deserves, but he is far from the only composer to have drawn upon such folk sources. Thus, those familiar with even a few of the compositions of Béla Bartók are likely to feel his ghostly presence in Harbison’s concerto.

To be clear, neither Rihm nor Harbison should be accused to trying to channel either Berg or Bartók, respectively, in their concertos. I refer to these as ghostly presences because they provide a baseline through which the mind of the listener can begin to orient itself and become better disposed to follow the originality of each composer. Through such orientation the attentive listener is likely to come away with a solid feeling of satisfaction with all three of the concertos on this recording, rather than just enjoying the familiarity that comes with listening to Brahms!

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