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The Red Violin: Concertos by Corigliano and Kuusisto. Jaakko Kuusisto (b.1974): Leiko, for Symphony Orchestra, Op. 24 (2010), & Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 28 (2011-12); John Corigliano (b.1938): Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, The Red Violin (2003). Elina Vähälä, violin, Lahti Symphony Orchestra (Sinfonia Lahti), Jaakko Kuusisto, conductor. BIS-2020 SACD © 2013 TT: 77:04
Contemporary violin concertos that are listener friendly are always welcome, and these two more than make the grade. Both challenging works are immaculately played by Finnish virtuosa Elina Vähälä. Composer/conductor Jaakko Kuusisto is also a violinist, and he created his Violin Concerto specifically for Vähälä. The Lahti Symphony Orchestra plays superbly, and its sound within Sibelius Hall, Lahti, Finland, has been superbly captured by BIS Records. The excellent program notes are by the respective composers.
The CD opens with Kuusisto's Leika, a work that evolved from a 1998 piece, Play for piano, violin, cello, and clarinet. Leika is an Icelandic word meaning "child's play," but there is no other Icelandic aspect to the piece. Instead, "play" characterizes both virtuosic solo passages and the composer's toying with tonal colors. A slowly undulating melody is juxtaposed against a gradually developed rhythmic pulse. After the climax, where the main theme returns to its original form, a dialogue between the clarinet and harp brings the piece to a close. The scoring is imaginative and very attractive.
Kuusisto was very much influenced by having heard several Finnish violin concertos over a brief interval. His own plans to compose one were delayed until his friend and colleague Vähälä asked him to compose a concerto for her. Structural considerations as well as thoughts about instrumentation delayed his start on the score. In the end, he dropped thoughts of unusual instrumentation such as electronics. While he does use a typical three-movement form – an opening in sonata form, a solemn second movement and an energetic, fast finale – he opens the piece with a solo cadenza. The basic thematic material is presented and developed in this cadenza.
Preexisting violin concertos also influenced the creation of John Corigliano's Violin Concerto. The composer's father was a violin soloist and concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic for more than a quarter-century. The composer's childhood was filled with all the rehearsals his father did to bring works up to performance standards. This concerto had its genesis as a film score for the movie The Red Violin, directed by François Girard and featuring Joshua Bell as the voice of the violin. The film traced three centuries in the life of a great instrument. Corigliano used the baroque form of a chaconne to tie the episodes together, juxtaposing this against "a lyrical yet intense melody" representing Anna, the doomed wife of the violin's maker.
While the movie was being filmed, Corigliano used elements of the score to make a 17-minute work, The Red Violin: Chaconne for Violin and Orchestra (1997). This length meant soloists would need to pair it with another work. To create the Violin Concerto, he added three additional movements to the chaconne. A fleet Pianissimo Scherzo combines soft dynamics with "wild and colorful action." A central trio is a "knuckle-breaking double harmonics" version of Anna's theme. The third movement, Andante Flautando, is striking! A rocking melody played by the soloist mimics the sound of a flute; the soloist then joins the alto flute as a duo. The finale is a high-speed race between soloist and orchestra with each varying when and how much they speed up. The original chaconne theme returns to conclude the work.
Elina Vähälä produced a kaleidoscope of sound and a plethora of dynamics and rhythms during her performances of the two concertos. She coaxed a gorgeous warm tone from her Guadagnini violin (c.1780). Seamless melodies seem to have been spun out effortlessly while the considerable demands of both Kuusisto and Corigliano were met with the same aplomb.
For details of this violinist's 4/13 concert at St. Mary's, see the sidebar.