Dvorak: Violin Concerto in Am

I've been rather busy for the past week or so, and will be for several more days, so I'm going to make this brief.

Continuing my tour of the great 19th century violin concertos, sparked by Joseph Joachim's judgment of the four great German ones (Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Bruch, Brahms), I've branched out from the Germans. I was only vaguely aware that Dvorak had even written a violin concerto. Apparently, according to Dave Hurvitz (see video below), my ignorance was until relatively recently not that unusual: all the attention went to the cello concerto. Well, people were really missing something.

I described the Brahms concerto as being somehow larger than the other three named by Joachim. By a similar measure, I would describe the Dvorak as somehow smaller than the Brahms and Beethoven. It is in length literally smaller than those: three movements of comparable and modest length, very unlike the, so to speak, front-loaded Brahms and Beethoven, with their very long first movements. It's also lighter than the Germans, including Bruch and Mendelssohn. It doesn't seem to strike as deeply as the others, in their most intense moments, do. In spite of the fact that it's in a minor key, it's more bright and fiery than somber in the first movement, very sweet in the second (which flows without a pause from the first), and in the third simply joyous. And in that third movement it stands out from all the others. 

In all the others the third movement is either a little less impressive than the first and second, perhaps just a bit of a letdown, or, in the case of Beethoven, a definite letdown. But this one is possibly, depending on your mood, the best of the concerto. I don't see how anyone can listen to it without being lifted up into its high spirits. It makes me smile.

Is this a great work? Well, maybe not in that quasi-physical sense of the term which I applied to the Brahms. But in the sense of being a classic, a work that stands with the best work of its time as deserving of attention and commanding love, yes, it's great. 

I was going to go to Dave Hurvitz for advice on which recording to try, but as it turned out I didn't listen to his recommendation until I had heard the concerto several times. That was because I discovered that I have a recording, an LP from 1980--this one:


As far as I recall, I had not even heard of this violinist before. I figured I would listen to the LP once, then see what Hurvitz would recommend and probably try it (or them). But I just kept listening to the LP. It's perfectly satisfying to me. What can I say, with my limited vocabulary? It's just beautiful, crystal clear, lively, sure, and precise. 

I did finally listen to Hurvitz, just a little while ago, and learned, as I mentioned, some things about the concerto which I hadn't known. I found Hurvitz annoying when someone first recommended him to me, but I've come to like him now. Perhaps I'll listen to the recording he recommends, a Supraphon recording from the '60s, Josef Suk, Karel Ančerl, and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Or perhaps not. 

I see that there is no lack of performances of the concerto on YouTube. I will leave you to pick one of those if YouTube is your preference.

Now on to Tchaikovsky.

Lord of the World Revisited

As I mentioned in the previous (but one) post, I've been wanting to re-read Robert Hugh Benson's Lord of the World, which I first read almost exactly eleven years ago. Since it concerns the Antichrist and the end of the world, the subject matter seems even more timely now than it did then. I wrote about it at the time--click here to read that post--and for the most part what I said there still applies after this reading. But I enjoyed it much more, and think it's a better book, this time.

Some part of this upgrade, so to speak, may be due to the fact that I read an actual printed book this time, the nicely printed and bound one from Cluny Media, rather than a Kindle version. I just don't much like reading anything more than a couple of thousand words on an electronic device. And some part may be due to my having given it more attention this time. Whatever the reason, I found it more involving on every level than I did before. I didn't find the lack of narrative drama that I complained about before, and I found myself more involved with the characters than before. In particular the story of one character, Mabel Brand, wife of a major political leader, is quite moving. I can't say much more about that without giving too much away. It's still not a great work from the literary point of view, but it's a good one, a better one than I thought on first reading.

I still find--I'll try to keep this vague--that some parts of the actual spiritual and physical collision of Christ and Antichrist are vaguely depicted, which is not a surprising flaw in such an attempt. And the extent to which Benson imagines the 21st century Catholic Church to be more or less the same as it was in his time remains a striking feature--not necessarily a defect, just strikingly not what has actually happened. Which is true of most of his imagined 20th century history. And almost ludicrously, he envisions the establishment of a new compulsory secular worship as requiring the assistance of an apostate priest who designs ceremonies as elaborate and minutely choreographed as a High Mass in the Vatican in Benson's time. If that is to be the way things go at the actual end, it must be a long way off yet. (The apostate priest, by the way, is named Francis, which amused me.)

The story, as I mentioned, is also more timely, which makes it more interesting. The idea of a compulsory secular worship is not as far-fetched as it was only eleven years ago, with corporations and governments and universities making life difficult for anyone who does not actively join in the celebration of "Pride" (!).  And moves by the federal government in the past few years to put some Christians under surveillance as potential terrorists make the persecution described in the book much more easily imagined. 

Note: I feel obliged to say that I don't think the word "persecution" is accurate as applied to Christians in this country right now. We may see the potential for it, but it isn't here now, and to claim that it is here is the mistake we refer to as "crying wolf." 

And, just for the record, I do believe--in fact I think it's obvious, in fact I think it would be difficult and foolish to deny--that the spirit of Antichrist is very much active in Western culture right now. Whether this means we actually might be near the end of the world is not a question on which I have anything like a definite opinion--not for public expression, and not even in my own mind. 


NOTE: the Cluny edition is a hardback and thus on the expensive side. But as of this writing it and many other titles are going for 20% off, which makes this one $26.36 vs. $32.95. I don't know how long this will be the case. You'll see the discount applied in your cart before you check out.


Brahms: Violin Concerto

With this concerto, I've finished what I call my Joachim project: to get to know the four concertos named by Joseph Joachim (the very famous 19th century violinist) in this remark:

The Germans have four violin concertos. The greatest, most uncompromising is Beethoven's. The one by Brahms vies with it in seriousness. The richest, the most seductive, was written by Max Bruch. But the most inward, the heart's jewel, is Mendelssohn's.

And possibly, with hesitation and deference, to see whether I agreed with him. The answer is: well, not exactly. I wouldn't say I disagree, exactly; I'm only going to say that his description of the Mendelssohn is not mine, nor would I pick any of the four as a "heart's jewel."

You will note that Joachim's statements are not rankings. He's not saying that there is a semi-objective superiority of one over the others. Yes, he does say that Beethoven's is the greatest, but considering what he says of the others, I don't think he means absolutely superior, but rather the grandest, the largest. By virtue of their inclusion in his list, all four are "great" in the more casual sense. But Mendelssohn's, it seems, is especially beloved. To say that one has a favorite flower does not disparage other flowers, and it seems reasonable to say that this was Joachim's personal favorite.

In truth, my most accurate response to the question "Which of these is your favorite?" would be "The one I'm listening to now." But I'll put it another way with another question: if you had to pick one, if could only ever again hear one, which would it be? Right now I would pick Brahms, and it's not only because it's the one I heard most recently. That was a couple of weeks ago, so I'm not under its immediate influence. My reason may be the same thing that Joachim sees in the Beethoven. The word "majesty" occurred to me several times as I listened. It just seems somehow a little larger, a little more powerful, perhaps a little deeper, than the others, while lacking nothing in basic musical appeal when compared to them. 

I would probably declare myself unable to choose between Beethoven and Brahms except that I'm not fond of Beethoven's third movement. Like the Beethoven, the Brahms is way out of balance in favor of the first movement, which in both is as long or longer than the second and third two combined. This is not true of the other two concertos. That makes me wonder whether Brahms was consciously emulating Beethoven or not. A biography might answer that question. 

Joachim's list completed, I'm now extending the project to include two other great Romantic violin concertos, those of Tchaikovsky and Sibelius. Wait, Dvorak wrote one, too, which as far as I remember I haven't heard. Joachim's list was limited to German composers, so Dvorak's absence is not necessarily significant. So, three others.

I'm glad to see that it seems to be generally acceptable now to say "concertos" instead of "concerti." The latter, at least when I tried to use it, always sounded pretentious or snobbish. But if I didn't use it I felt like a hick who just didn't know any better. The word has long completed the journey to full Anglophone citizenship, and can be pluralized like other English words. Or so I say. 

I was a little surprised, when reading Bleak House a few months ago, to see "restaurant" italicized, as is normally done with foreign words and phrases that remain foreign. I don't know when that ceased. I'm amused by the idea that the concept was apparently foreign. England certainly had long had its pubs and other places where one could have a meal (Samuel Johnson frequents a "chop house"), but there must have been something different about the French approach.