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Views And Reviews: Henry Vieuxtemps

"What image does the name “Vieuxtemps” conjure in your mind? With a bit of a question mark hovering over the “x”, my mental mischief-maker comes up with “vieux-temps dansant” – “old-time dancing”! No doubt someone will correct my pidgin French, but for the simple purposes of the “Loony Toons” imagery that’s near enough for me. Actually, as a mental association it does have its serious side for, in one particular sense, it happens to be quite apposite,'' wrote Paul Serotsky, reviewing a Naxos recording os some of the Belgian composer's works.

Keith Anderson’s booklet note is well up to his usual informative standard, though how he keeps it up is a source of wonderment: over the years, he must have worn his fingers to the bone for Naxos. Maybe that’s why in this note his normally good grammar looks a bit frayed around the edges, so let’s hope that it’s only a temporary aberration. Anyway, try this sentence for size, “[He] was acclaimed by Schumann, who compared the boy to Paganini, whom he met in London in 1834.” Just who was it that met Paganini in London? As the answer’s not entirely obvious even to me, I’d advise those for whom English is not their native tongue to tread very carefully.

Notwithstanding that little aside, and to get to the point, Keith suggests that “The Belgian composer Henry Vieuxtemps was known in his lifetime as one of the foremost exponents of the violin in Europe, and much of his music demonstrates his own considerable abilities as a virtuoso performer, combining superb technical command with deeper musical understanding.” Regarding those compositions, Keith comments, “In particular, he added a more classical dimension to violin repertoire”. Considering the age in which Vieuxtemps lived and worked, “restored” would probably be nearer the mark than “added”, but no matter: the important point is that Vieuxtemps apparently lived up to his name! (Try not to split your sides, folks, this is the serious bit.)

So, you might ask – and assuming you don’t already know – what does Vieuxtemps’s music sound like? Well, bearing in mind the composer’s milieu and Keith’s admonition, you might expect it to be a fair bit to the right of centre. To my ears, that’s exactly how it is: Vieuxtemps was “behind the times”. So, no doubt, the avant-garde of his generation looked down their noses at him – I can’t imagine that deplorable attitude being solely the prerogative of the latter half of the twentieth century. Similarly, I’ll bet that even back then there were also oodles of much less vociferous folks who sighed gratefully for “new” music that didn’t curl up their toes.

Vieuxtemps was a “neo-classicist”. In common with “neos” down the ages he took the tried and trusted formulae, and lightly spiced them with modernism in moderation. As a soloist of some standing, he was well up with the “cutting edge” of the time: Beethoven’s ground-breaking Violin Concerto was in his repertoire, and he played Mendelssohn’s, which was then still in the “ultra modern” class. You can certainly feel something of these, and especially the latter, in the concertos on this disc. Moreover, the 15-minute span of the first movement of the Fifth Concerto also breathes something of the grandeur and breadth of Brahms, except that Brahms hadn’t yet written any of the symphonic music from which that feeling derives! Although as a performer he had been compared to Paganini, you will find little or nothing of the latter’s flashy showmanship in Vieuxtemps’s own concertos. In combining the moderation of the classicists of his past with the Romantic warmth of his present, he indulges in modest inventiveness but steers well clear of any of those pesky, overheated histrionics. In fact, you could happily curl up with a nice, warm mug of cocoa and a Vieuxtemps concerto, and afterwards – but only afterwards – sleep all the better for it.

The Fifth Concerto kicks off with a full-length, purely orchestral exposition that provides ample opportunity to savour the composer’s robustly lyrical style, the quality of the orchestral playing, and the overall recorded sound – at least in respect of the Fifth and Sixth Concertos. Although it won’t send a prestigious award’s panel of judges into transports of ecstasy, the recording sounds just fine, nicely rounded in a sympathetic acoustic which lends warmth without smothering the details in over-reverberant fog.

There are those who like to gripe about “thin” violin sound, and who would, I’m sure, find grist for their mills here. I don’t find this a problem, certainly not when the Slovak RSO violins play as sensitively as they do here. Of course, the violins are simply the “sharp end” of a “string spectrum”, so no doubt there’s another class of gripers who will crawl out of the woodwork to grumble about the music’s murky bottom. Yet, ripe as that is, I don’t find any lack of clarity about it. Instead I find myself charmed to hear the basses making their presence felt with such rotund firmness – and no jokes about “firm, round bottoms”, if you please.

Vieuxtemps’s often Mendelssohnian woodwind are equally well represented by the Slovak players, characterfully caressing their continual contributions whilst the horns add a mellow glow and, near the beginning of the Fifth, with evident relish seize their opportunity when Vieuxtemps lobs them “over the top”. Eastern European “wobble” in this department is conspicuous by its virtual absence: you’ll notice any only if you’re looking for trouble, which is hardly what you should be doing if you’re armed with just a mug of warm cocoa. The brass department takes rather a back seat, although this is largely dictated by the music’s style. Trumpets are occasionally used to colour softer music, but otherwise the brass merely lend amplitude to tuttis – a modest but valuable contribution that happily they don’t spoil by milking their chances.

Whilst waxing lyrical about all the supporting cast, I am in danger of forgetting the star of the show! We are told that Misha Keylin, who is now in his early thirties, has performed in “over forty countries spanning five continents”, so he’s been around a bit. The reason I mention this is that, I suppose traditionally, we tend to associate Naxos with the unearthing of unknown (and therefore cheap) talent. As David Denton once declared, when asked what Naxos did when one of these discoveries made a name for himself on Naxos and succumbed to the inevitable carrot dangled by some major company, “We just go and find somebody else.” The times they are a-changing, basically because the carrots are getting smaller, fewer, and farther between. Klaus Heyman is starting to look less an astute businessman, and more a prophet!

Keylin, set well in front of the orchestra but thankfully by much less than the proverbial mile, proves an admirable advocate, apparently resisting any temptation to gild the Vieuxtemps lily. His tone, slender but mellifluous, fits the frequent outbreaks of tenderness like a glove, while his technique lacks nothing in agility and flexibility. At first hearing I seemed to sense the occasional tendency to scrappy attack, but oddly enough the second time around I was actually much less conscious of this. I don’t know why, but I wasn’t! However, what I was more aware of the second time around was the flexibility of Keylin’s playing, for whatever Vieuxtemps’s neo-classical pretentions he is nevertheless first and foremost a moderate Romantic in the mould of Mendelssohn, Chopin and company. Thus Keylin seems to have more bends to negotiate than a Monte Carlo Grand Prix driver, and to his credit he negotiates the lot with assurance, ease, and high entertainment value.

Master of ceremonies Andrew Mogrelia, another stalwart of the Naxos stable, aptly holds the reins connecting orchestra and soloist and assures a pleasing unanimity – no mean feat, given the music’s predisposition to twists and turns. I presume we have him to thank for following, or at least giving the distinct impression of following, Beecham’s advice to “never look at the brass – it only encourages them”!

The Seventh Concerto, which by the way has an exceptionally spirited finale that militates a little against “cocoa-time” listening, finds the same soloist accompanied by a different orchestra and conductor, and recorded in a different location. I’ve listed them as described on the CD’s u-card and booklet front, though be warned that within the package lurks a less consistent tale. Only the Slovak RSO and Mogrelia are afforded “profiles” in the booklet: there’s no mention of the Arnhem Philharmonic and Takuo Yuasa. This is compounded by the CD label, which credits only Mogrelia and – the Razumovsky Sinfonia! Now, this orchestra is a "medium-sized" scratch band made up of the cream of the main Slovak orchestras, lighter in numbers and lighter in tone, but is it playing on this CD?

On first acquaintance, the general performance and recording of the Seventh Concerto sound much the same as those of the Fifth and Sixth. Pay closer attention, and you hear a slightly different instrumental layout, a marginally mellower orchestral sound, and a more rounded balance of woodwind timbres. I would plump for the reference to the Razumovsky Sinfonia as an aberration, and the other two groups present and correct as per the listing above – but don’t quote me on that. The one thing we can be sure of is that the soloist is the same. Maybe Naxos would like to confirm the orchestral participants for us?

In the final analysis, exactly which orchestra is playing what piece doesn’t matter, other than giving credit where it’s actually due. The party of the seventh part plays its part as enchantingly as the party of the fifth and sixth parts, those minor differences apart. Vieuxtemps may not have written the greatest of violin concertos, but then, if the term is to retain any semblance of meaning that accolade must necessarily fall to only a privileged few. What he does bequeath to us is a fine body of skilfully crafted, vigorous, melodious and involving music – and music plenty good enough to earn such patently sympathetic advocacy, from both performers and sound engineers, as it receives here. Go on, give it a whirl – after all, it won’t cost you much more than the price of a packet of cocoa!


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