Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto (CD review)

Also, John Adams: Violin Concerto. Chad Hoopes, violin; Kristjan Jarvi, MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra. Naive V5368.

Quick: What do nineteenth-century German Romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) and contemporary American minimalist composer John Adams (b. 1947) have in common? Correct: They both write music. Naturally, the booklet notes try to explain why young American violinist Chad Hoopes chose to pair two disparate violin concertos by these two dissimilar composers in his debut album. I didn't find the arguments very convincing, however, the most persuasive one being that the two concertos are among the performer's favorites. Now, that's fair enough.

Mr. Hoopes bears a slight if superficial resemblance to Justin Bieber, which can't hurt album sales. Moreover, from what I hear on this disc, he has about an 800:1 talent-ratio advantage over Mr. Bieber, which definitely can't hurt album sales. Mr. Hoopes won first prize in the Young Artists Division of the 2008 Yehudi Menuhin International Violin Competition and has since appeared with a number of ensembles throughout the world. The present album is, as I say, his first foray into the recording field.

Anyhow, the program begins with Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto No. 2 in E minor, Op. 64 (more commonly known simply as the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto). The composer premiered it in 1845, and it would be his last big orchestral work. Fortunately, he went out in style, the concerto being among the most popular in the violin repertoire.

Donald Rosenberg in an accompanying essay notes the Mendelssohn concerto's "impetuous phrases with which the violin opens." It's probably this quality of impetuosity that best describes Hoopes's playing; while other violinists have probably provided more emotion, more sympathy, more sentimentality, more overt Romanticism in the concerto, Hoopes brings an appealing tone of controlled youthful enthusiasm to it. Not that the tempos are overly brisk; Hoopes just moves them forward with a good, strong thrust, bringing out more of the work's rhythmic characteristics than some other violinists do.

Hoopes takes the lovely melodies of Mendelssohn's second-movement Andante more quickly than usual, yet he does them little or no harm, again emphasizing the movement's dramatic momentum over its more-delicate lyric phrasing. And, again, this is not a bad approach, just a different one. The movement still retains much of its beauty and grace.

Mendelssohn's finale is one of high, good cheer, which Hoopes negotiates more conventionally than he does the preceding movements. His violin dances, jumps, spins, and pirouettes elegantly, although with maybe not quite the ultimate zeal I've heard from a handful of other performers. As I say, it's only here that Hoopes tends to sound a little more traditional than in other parts of the concerto

John Adams premiered his Violin Concerto in 1994, and while it doesn't approach anything like the popularity of the Mendelssohn (because, as you know, for most modern composers tunefulness appears forbidden), the music is, nevertheless, innovative and fun in its own way. The Adams concerto is definitely a modern piece, and one has to accept that fact at the outset. Even the movement notations are unique: [], Chaconne: 'Body Through Which the Dream Flows,' and Toccare (Italian, "to touch"). Well, right there you know you're in for something out of the ordinary. The violin enters almost immediately, and from that point Hoopes continues an upward spiral of continuous notes. The music becomes more insistent as it carries on in an ever-forward circular pattern of rhythms, Hoopes making the most of its sometimes eerie transformations. Even though you won't find the melodic lines of a Mendelssohn here, you'll find Hoopes is able to keep your attention with his well-animated playing.

As with the Mendelssohn, the first movement of the Adams piece glides readily into the second, darker, evocative slow movement, and Hoopes negotiates the transition effortlessly, supported by excellent, well-modulated accompaniment from Maestro Kristjan Jarvi and the MDR Leipzig RSO. Then, in the finale, we get a vigorous, quick-paced dance, with hints of Adams's Shaker Loops throughout. OK, so maybe there are more similarities between the Adams and Mendelssohn pieces than at first meet the eye (or ear), at least structurally. Hoopes ends the Adams work with another of his bursts of impetuous energy, making in all an enjoyable ride.

Naive recording producer Alfredo Lasheras Hakobian and balance engineer Evelyn Ruhlemann recorded the album at the MDR-Studio Leipzig in November 2013. With the soloist front and center (but not too much so), the sound is fairly natural, with a decent dynamic range, good frequency extensions in treble and bass, and a modest midrange transparency. It's pretty much all most listeners could ask for in this music, including a moderate depth to the supporting ensemble, a mild resonance, a sweet warmth, and a realistically nuanced violin tone.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa