GRAMOPHONE AWARDS SHORTLIST 2019
Adams Violin Concerto Leila Josefowicz vn St Louis Symphony Orchestra / David Robertson Nonesuch F 7559 79351-0 (33’ • DDD)
In his memoir Hallelujah Junction (Faber: 2008; 2/09), John Adams pays a glowing tribute to Leila Josefowicz’s tireless advocacy of his Violin Concerto, praising the soloist’s ability to bring out implicit rhythmic shadings and expressive possibilities in the music that even he had not imagined were there.
From the evidence provided on this new recording by Josefowicz, one can fully understand why. Adams’s virtuoso concerto is difficult to pull off at the best of times, with more tricky corners to navigate than a Formula One racing track. A restless, edgy lyricism pervades the first movement, which imperceptibly gains momentum through Adams’s trick of using a metric modulation grid à la Elliott Carter. The two forces don’t truly lock into place until the final movement (‘Toccare’), which alternates between fiery capriciousness and a dancelike swagger. In between, an eerie, dreamlike second still retains some of the restlessness of the opening movement but is held in check by a looping chaconne bass that shimmers underneath.
Comparing Josefowicz’s new recording with her previous performance (the BBC Symphony Orchestra with Adams himself conducting) – which possessed plenty of grit and dynamism – seems somewhat unfair. That was back in 2002. The 2018 Josefowicz vintage certainly brings with it a depth and maturation that can only be achieved through 20 years of living and breathing a work now performed by the violinist more than 100 times. Throw into the mix David Robertson’s bold interpretation with the excellent St Louis Symphony Orchestra and this recording sets a new benchmark. Many of the finest performances of Adams’s concerto bring something new to the work – heightened characterisation in Tamsin Waley-Cohen’s excellent recording, again with the BBC SO, power and punch in Ilya Gringolts’s take on the work with Julien Salemkour and the Copenhagen Philharmonic or nuanced shaping and integration of soloist and orchestra from Kristjan Järvi and the MDR Symphony Orchestra with Chad Hoopes. Josefowicz’s mesmerising performance manages to blend all these elements while retaining her own imprint. Faultless. Pwyll ap Siôn (6/18) Selected comparisons: Josefowicz, BBC SO, Adams (7/02) (BBC) BBCLJ30012 Hoopes, MDR SO, K Järvi (6/14) (NAIV) V5368 Waley-Cohen, BBC SO, Litton (12/16) (SIGN) SIGCD468 Gringolts, Copenhagen PO, Salemkour (7/17) (ORCH) ORC100066
JS Bach Violin Concertos – BWV1042; BWV1052; BWV1056. Concerto for Oboe and Violin, BWV1060a. Concerto for Two Violins, BWV1043. Cantata No 21 – Sinfoniaa. Cantata No 174 – Sinfonia. Cantata No 182 – Sonata. Trio Sonatas – No 3, BWV527; No 5, BWV529. Orchestral Suite No 2, BWV1067 Isabelle Faust vn aXenia Löffler ob Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin / Bernhard Forck Harmonia Mundi F (two CDs for the price of one) HMM90 2335/6 (144’ • DDD)
That Isabelle Faust and the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin have let this Bach violin concertos album run to nearly 2� hours of music suggests a relish of their task that is mirrored triumphantly in the resultant music-making. Their choice of repertoire, too, feels driven by a desire to celebrate Bach’s life with the violin rather than document it. If they had wanted to be pedantically completist about it, we would have the Fifth Brandenburg and the Triple Concerto; instead we get the three known violin concertos plus the three most convincing reconstructions from harpsichord concertos, supplemented by a reconstruction of the putative early violin version of the B minor Flute Suite, and all neatly interspersed with arrangements of two of the organ sonatas and a clutch of cantata sinfonias (including the rarely heard, trumpet-and-drum-laden BWV1045, a violin concerto movement of some flashiness).
Everything here is energy, though the exuberance is of the grounded kind that never gets out of hand. Tempos are brisk; but while there’s certainly not much risk of listeners thinking any of them too slow, neither does any one of them sound too fast, at least not the way they are performed here. Faust’s playing is technically brilliant, yet always at the service of the music, and everywhere enlivened by a richly varied repertoire of interpretative details, from spontaneous twiddle-ornaments to little tempo-tugs or deftly elongated notes within a phrase. From her 1658 Stainer she produces a sound that is period-instrument clean (even at times a little wiry), but can summon warmth of tone and tonal strength when she wants. And together she and this superb orchestra show exemplary contrapuntal clarity while also outlining the music’s architecture through glinting dynamic changes or compelling long-range crescendos and diminuendos. A word should go, too, to Xenia Löffler, whose liquid-gold oboe-playing is a perfect foil for Faust’s busy violin in BWV1060 and a perfect match for its aching beauty of the Sinfonia from Cantata No 21. In short, without being tempted to eccentricity, these performances reveal keen musical minds constantly at work.
The deeper delight of it all is that you can encounter subtle new aspects in the familiar works – the E major Concerto intimate, even a little withdrawn, the slow movement of the A minor given a lightly pulsing, march-like momentum – and real revelations in the lesser-known ones. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard the reconstructed concertos sound so convincing (especially the D minor), the trio sonatas go at a thrilling lick that surely no organ could keep up with and the sinfonias simply gleam. This is a hugely enjoyable celebration of Bach – himself a violinist – which conjures not so much the strict contrapuntal and formal genius as the joyous spirit of the living man. Lindsay Kemp (4/19)
12 GRAMOPHONE SHORTLIST 2019