Following its monumental CD series of Romantic piano concertos, Hyperion has plunged into the world of the Romantic violin concerto, again throwing in the occasional well-known work (the Saint-Saëns Third) with the extremely obscure (Hubay, Somerwell) and the slightly or moderately familiar, as in the case of the present disc. Hyperion's true selling point is not just coverage of the territory but commitment to excellence of performance, in this case featuring the highly-celebrated young Russian violinist Ilya Gringolts and the BBC Scottish Symphony under Israeli-born Ilan Volkov, hardly a graybeard himself — at 26 he became the orchestra's chief conductor, succeeding Osmo Vänskä.
Anton Arensky is known today, outside
It may be unfair to mention those more celebrated concertos in the same paragraph as Arensky's, for the work at hand does have considerable charm and sweetness, brought to the fore by Gringolts's graceful playing and the flexible, enthusiastic accompaniment by Volkov's forces. All these qualities are especially evident in the lilting waltz movement, with clarinet and other winds contributing delightful moments to the ballet-like proceedings.
Sergei Taneyev's Suite de concert of 1909 is quite another kind of work — though it too was dedicated to Auer (an old friend of the composer). Taneyev was a concert pianist (he played the Moscow premiere of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto and world premieres of his other concerted piano works) and educator whose symphonies are perhaps his best-known works today, along with the concert suite at hand. The work is a fascinating combination of baroque and Romantic elements, with its echoes of Bach suites and also of suites by Schumann and Tchaikovsky, and it very much looks forward to the 20th Century, notably to neoclassicism, in its harmonic palette and its interest in mixing idioms of different centuries.
The curious mix of styles is indicated by the very labels of the five movements of this 41-minute suite. It opens with a baroque-style Prelude, its tempo Grave; the first notes for the violin recall Bach's Chaconne in D minor, but we are soon off into sonorities more likely to be heard in Cesar Franck. The second movement is a brisk Gavotte, in 18th-Century style, or rather in the manner of something from Respighi's Ancient Airs and Dances. But the third movement is labeled Märchen, i.e., Fairy Tale, and is, as Calum MacDonald's informative booklet essay points out, "more like a miniature tone-poem than a genre movement," altogether 20th-Century in its shifting moods and harmonies. The fourth and longest movement is a Theme and Variations, the theme in a stately three-quarters time, the variations ranging from a waltz and a mazurka to a double fugue! The finale is a Tarantella at Presto speed. Throughout all of this the violin is center stage, for this suite, however complex in design and allusion, is also a dazzling display piece.
The Suite de concert is probably too intellectually demanding to ever become a concert-hall favorite, and too technically demanding for all but true virtuoso performers. There is a much-admired David Oistrakh recording with Nicolai Malko and the Philharmonia, currently paired with the Khachaturian Concerto; I haven't heard it but don't doubt that the piece suited the Russian virtuoso perfectly. Still, Gringolts is quite brilliant and thoughtful in his own right, and Hyperion provides good contemporary sound for the orchestra (though it's just a little recessed for my taste, and the snare drum is perhaps a little too subdued in the Märchen movement). The vigorous and sensitive accompaniment that Volkov provides, and the welcome pairing of the simpler, warmer Arensky Concerto, make this CD one worth owning.