Thursday, March 5, 2015

Concertos and Soloists

Concertos for solo instruments, unless they are for instruments played by the composer to some level of virtuosity, often require the collaboration of a solo instrumentalist. What I mean is that if I intend to write a violin concerto, as I probably do, I will consult frequently with a violinist as to the technical possibilities and limitations. Examples of this are numerous and include the composition of Stravinsky's Violin Concerto in collaboration with the violinist Samuel Dushkin and the Brahms Violin Concerto, written with advice from its dedicatee Joseph Joachim. Notice that this intimate kind of collaboration between composer and soloist is something that has only become the usual practice since the middle of the 19th century--Beethoven, for example, did not seem to require consultation with a violinist on his concerto. I think the main reason for this is that the level of virtuosity expected in a concerto was raised considerably by Paganini and Liszt, both virtuosos of their instruments, and therefore other composers followed suit. As most composers (though not Berlioz) were pianists, they needed no advice on writing for piano, but when it came to the violin, they did.

The guitar has proven even more challenging for composers as the complexity of what chords and configurations are possible on the six strings is even greater than the four of the violin. Exactly how much collaboration Joaquin Rodrigo required in writing his first concerto for guitar, the Concierto de Aranjuez is an interesting question. It was written for Regino Sanz de la Maza in 1939 and premiered by him in 1940. This concerto is so demanding that I have some doubts that anyone, in 1940 (with the exception of Andrés Segovia), had sufficient technique to deliver a successful performance. I don't seem to be able to find any historic recordings of the work, but Wikipedia says that both Regina Sanz de la Maza and Narciso Yepes made early ones. The reason I mention the Aranjuez is that the logical choice for both collaborator and dedicatee in 1939 would likely have been Segovia but, alas, due to the Spanish Civil War (1936 - 39) both he and Rodrigo were living in exile, Segovia in Montevideo, Uruguay and Rodrigo in Paris, France. So perhaps that was why Rodrigo dedicated his first concerto to Sanz de la Maza. In any case, Segovia never seems to have forgiven him for this perceived slight. Rodrigo tried to make up for it by writing a later concerto for Segovia, the Fantasia para un Gentilhombre, but while he played the Fantasia many times and recorded it, Segovia never once performed the Aranjuez in public. But this does not seem to have delayed in the slightest the work's enormous popularity. As someone who has played the Aranjuez quite a number of times I can state that whatever concerto you might propose to the music director, they are likely to ask you to play the Aranjuez!

I relate this in order to set up a contrast with the fate of another concerto. When preparing the post on the Schumann Piano Concerto I read the very interesting Wikipedia article about his Violin Concerto. This piece is largely unknown and rarely performed and I didn't even get around to listening to it as my attention was on the Piano Concerto. But thanks to one of my frequent commentators I went back and listened to it. He mentioned that he thought it was just as great as the Mendelssohn and after giving it a listen, I think I agree. So why is this concerto so obscure? Here is the relevant passage in the Wikipedia article:
Though Joachim performed Schumann’s Fantasie, he never performed the Violin Concerto. After playing it through with the Hannover Court Orchestra (of which Joachim was the concertmaster) for Schumann in October 1853, Joachim retained the manuscript for the rest of his life. After Schumann’s attempted suicide in February 1854 and subsequent decline and death in a sanatorium in Endenich, Joachim evidently suspected the Concerto was a product of Schumann’s madness and thought of the music as morbid. Joachim’s biographer Andreas Moser reproduced a letter in which Joachim discussed Schumann’s Concerto as showing ‘a certain exhaustion, which attempts to wring out the last resources of spiritual energy’, though ‘certain individual passages bear witness to the deep feelings of the creative artist’.
Joachim’s opinion prevailed on the composer’s widow Clara and on Brahms, and the work was not published in the Complete Edition of Schumann’s works and was in effect kept secret throughout the 19th century. 
Joachim deposited the manuscript of the concerto with the Prussian State Library in Berlin, and stated in his will (he died in 1907) that the work should be neither played nor published until 100 years after the composer's death, i.e. until 1956.
This whole bizarre story is a testimony to the enormous influence of Joseph Joaquim, probably the greatest violinist of the 19th century, though there was also Paganini. It is odd that his opinion could be accepted by both Clara Schumann and Brahms. And still odder that Joachim seems to have acquired the rights to the concerto, of which he disapproved, so that he could impose his wishes as to its being kept secret for 100 years! Read Wikipedia for the equally odd circumstances of the work's rediscovery and premiere.

The thing is, this is a fine work. I think I agree with my commentator that I like it at least as much as the Mendelssohn concerto. Here, listen for yourself and decide. Here is the Schumann Violin Concerto (composed in 1853, premiered in 1937) played by Frank Peter Zimmermann with the WDR Sinfonieorchester - Kölner Philharmonie conducted by: Jukka Pekka Saraste:

Imagine if Andrés Segovia had been given control over the score to the Aranjuez!


Rickard Dahl said...

I wasn't aware of the odd circumstances regarding the concerto. It was an interesting read.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks! I'm so short of time this week that my next concerto guide post will likely be delayed a week. Plus, lot of long concertos to listen to!