Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto (CD review)
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:
William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer
Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.
The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.