Friday, April 07, 2017

Unusual concertos 1-10: From Harmonica to Oud

The concerto for solo instrument(s) and orchestra is one of the most popular genres in classical music. However, I think 95+ % of all concertos have been composed for piano or violin. Previously I have run a series on concertos for less common instruments in this blog, reaching an amazing number of 100 in the end (all these posts were reset to draft end March). I will be summarizing these in ten posts in the course of the year, each covering ten unusual concertos, keeping the sequences the same as in the past.

[1] Harmonica or mouth organ. Hardly an instrument that evokes the classical concert halls, but still several composers of note have written concertos for it, more often than not inspired by harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler. The first one I could trace back is a piece I have not been able to get hold off, the 1940 Caribbean Concerto by Jean Berger. Better known names that have ventured into this rare type of concerto include Malcolm Arnold, Heitor Villa-Lobos and Arthur Benjamin. I have selected as example the 1951 concerto by Michael Spivakovsky, composed for Tommy Reilly. The recording is by Reilly himself with the Munich Radio Orchestra under Charles Gerhardt on a Chandos CD.

[2] Vibraphone. This is one of the tuneful members of the percussion group, similar to marimba and xylophone, but with aluminium bars instead of wooden bars. Dating back to the nineteen twenties, this is a relatively new addition to the family of musical instruments. It is mainly associated with jazz music, where it plays a prominent role, and indeed is rarely seen in classical music. I have selected as example the only concerto of this type in my collection. It is by Siegfried Fink and dates back to the second half of the 20th century. The recording is by Peter Sadlo with the Munich Chamber Orchestra under Gilbert Varga from a Koch Schwann CD.

[3] Viola. This is the first concerto in the series that features a regular instrument from the classical symphony orchestra. However, as popular as its siblings, the violin and more recently the cello, have become as concertante instruments, the poor viola has always lagged behind. It had some exposure in the baroque area (Telemann, Stamitz), faired very poorly in the classical and romantic periods, and only gained more ground in the 20th century, when composers like Hindemith, Bartok, Arnold, Walton, Milhaud, Nystroem and Penderecki composed concertos for this ugly duckling. I have opted for a relatively unknown masterpiece by the Polish composer Grazyna Bacewicz. Her 1968 concerto in three movements highlights all the strong points of this instrument. The recording is by Stefan Kamasa with the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra under StanisÅ‚aw WisÅ‚ocki from an Olympia CD.

[4] Biwa and shakuhachi, the first in a few posts that tackle more than one concertante instrument. Of course, in this case both solo instruments qualify as quite unusual - they are part of Japan's musical heritage. The shakuhachi is the Japanese bamboo equivalent of the western recorder, the biwa is the Japanese equivalent of the Western lute. I have opted for the only concerto I know for this combination of instruments, Toru Takemitsu's brilliant composition November steps (1967). The recording is by Kinshi Tsuruta and Katsuya Yokoyama with the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra under Hiroshi Wakasugi on a Denon CD.

[5] Horn, also known as the French horn. It is a well-established orchestra instrument, but after the quartet of concertos by Mozart, it has featured surprisingly infrequently as concertante instruments. Richard Strauss composed two beautiful concertos early and late in his career (1883, 1942), but it is hard to find other notable composers who ventured into this terrain. Even entering the more contemporary time line, we only find a few horn concertos, including Reinhold Gliere (1951), two by Malcolm Arnold (1945, 1956), and Peter Maxwell Davies (2000). I have opted for a relatively recent concerto by Oliver Knussen (1994). The recording is by Barry Tuckwell with the London Sinfonietta under the composer from a DG CD.

[6] Prepared piano, a piano that has had its sound altered by placing objects (preparations) between or on the strings or on the hammers or dampers. Although John Cage was not the first to try this, he coined the term prepared piano and was undoubtedly the composer who made the instrument famous. Rather surprisingly, concertos for this instrument are rare - I only have the Cage concerto from 1951 in my collection. The recording is by Stephen Drury with the Callithumpian Concert of New England under Charles Peltz from a Mode CD.

[7] Balalaika, the famous Russian folk instrument. Concertos for this instrument are extremely rare - I only have the Eduard Tubin concerto from 1964 in my collection, and I doubt another one exists. Tubin, Estonian by birth and Swedish resident since 1944, composed it for a doctor annex balalaika specialist (Zwetnow) whom he had met. The recording is by Emanuil Sheynkman with the Swedish National Radio Symphony Orchestra under Neeme Jarvi on a BIS CD.

[8] Alto saxophone, a member of the saxophone family of woodwind instruments invented by Belgian instrument designer Adolphe Sax in 1841. It is smaller than the tenor but larger than the soprano, and is the type most used in classical compositions - if the description of a concerto just says "saxophone" it will be the alto version. It took until 1934 before a major composer wrote a concerto for the instrument: Alexander Glazunov's Concerto in E flat major, which is still one of the finest in the repertoire. Later efforts include concertos by Creston, Denisov, Ibert, Aho and Larsson. I have selected the 1949 concerto by Ingolf Dahl as the example, in the version by John Harle with the New World Symphony under Tilson Thomas from a Phoenix CD.

[9] Bassoon, a member of the regular woodwind section of the orchestra. Concertos for this "grumpy" instrument have always been rare, the best known examples dating back to the baroque and classical/early romantic periods (Vivaldi, Mozart, Hummel, Weber). The general revival of concertos in the 20th century has bypassed this instrument to a large extent, with very few composers of name trying their hand on it. The best known more recent bassoon concertos are probably by Gubaidulina and Maxwell Davies.  I have selected the 1947 concerto by Gordon Jacob as the example, in the version by John Downey with the London Symphony Orchestra under Simon on a Chandos CD.

[10] Oud, a pear-shaped stringed instrument commonly used in North African and Middle Eastern music. Not surprisingly, there are very few classical music compositions for this highly unusual concert hall instrument. I am aware of only one concerto for oud and orchestra, composed by Alaa Hussein Saber in 1983. I came across this rarity in a 4CD box on oud music from jazz label Enja. It is played by Ammar El-Sherei and the Royal Oman Symphony. Honestly, the music is not brilliant and the oud is not an obvious concertante instrument, but it is fun to listen to something so off the beaten path.

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