Contemporary Music, Settling Scores with the Old Masters
Among the challenges the contemporary classical composer faces is the nagging issue of how to deal with the past. For much of the twentieth century, at least within the academic circles that gave us twelve-tone music, the composer was expected to avoid anything that worked previously. Those edicts relaxed toward the end of the century, as figures like British composer Nicholas Maw and the American John Adams took steps away from modernism, openly incorporating devices from the Romantic era and elsewhere to create new, and profound, music.
A few years after this wondrous concerto premiered, Maw—whose most notorious piece, the one-movement Odyssey Symphony, lasts one hundred minutes—summed up his relationship with the music of the past this way, in an interview with the Financial Times: "It's one of the arrogances of the twentieth century that art has to contain only the new. Previously it contained something people knew and something they didn't know—and I suppose that's what I'm aiming at."
The Violin Concerto achieves that balance. It's tonal, and organized so that a student of the classic showpiece concertos can follow the action. Yet it makes unusual demands on both the soloist and the orchestra. Six and a half minutes into the Scherzo second movement, for example, Maw writes an extended passage for pizzicato strings. It's not terribly tricky, but it needs to be executed so that each attack registers cleanly. Bell and the London Philharmonic nearly exaggerate these in pursuit of a stunning effect: For a minute or so, it feels like your brain is being repeatedly clawed and picked at by some powerfully hungry creature.
The piece was written for Bell, who has alternated between crossover-minded projects (The Red Violin) and serious repertoire since breaking out as a golden boy in the early '90s. Revered for his broad tone, the violinist keeps Maw's lines on the slacker side of nerdy, and by generally resisting any oversized flourishes, he allows the somewhat unmoored third movement to float rhapsodically along. There and elsewhere, Bell plays with great relaxed ease, treating the new and familiar elements inside Maw's score with the same steady hand.
Released: 1999, Sony Classics
Key Tracks: Scherzo; Finale: Allegro Moderato e Grazioso.
Catalog Choice: Odyssey Symphony, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (Simon Rattle, cond.).
Next Stop: Concertos, Joshua Bell, Cleveland Orchestra (Vladimir Ashkenazy, cond.)
After That: Osvaldo Golijov: La Pasión Segun San Marcos.
Book Pages: 483–484