Saturday, April 29, 2017
Unusual concertos 11-20: From Bandoneon to Basset horn
 Bandoneon, a type of concertina particularly popular in Argentina and Uruguay, and an essential ingredient in tango bands. It was Argentine composer and bandoneon virutoso Astor Piazzolla who made this instrument suitable for the classical concert hall. Amongst his compositions for this unusual instrument, there is one concerto, dating back to 1979. It is a fascinating and accessible piece of music, utterly convincing, and one of my favourites in this series of unusual concertos. It is played by Pablo Mainettti Orquestra de Gambra Teatre lliure under Josep Pons on a Harmonia Mundi CD.
 Harpsichord, an instrument that was widely used in Renaissance and Baroque music, only to gradually disappear from the musical scene with the rise of the piano. A few composers have resurrected this elegant instrument in the past century, with concertos having been composed by inter alia Poulenc, de Falla, Nyman, Martinu and Glass. I have selected the short two movement concerto by Henryk Gorecki from 1980, a brilliant extrovert showpiece, totally unlike his famous (and magnificent) third symphony. It is played by Elzbieta Chojnacka and the London Sinfonietta under Markus Stenz on a Nonesuch CD.
 Ondes martenot, the electronic beast invented in 1928 by Maurice Martenot. It is probably better known for horror movie soundtracks, but serious composers have written for it, probably the best known example being Messiaen's Turangalila symphony. Concertos for this very unusual instrument are rare though - at least by composers with reasonably well known names. I have selected the concerto by Andre Jolivet from 1947, which demonstrates the concertante possibilities of this instrument very well. It is played by Jeanne Loriod and the Orchestre Philharmonique de l'ORTF under the composer, from a CD box that is no longer available.
 Dizi, the most common version of the Chinese bamboo flute. Undoubtedly, recent generations of Chinese classical music composers will have written concertos for this traditional instrument, but the only one I could find is by Guo Wenjing, titled Sorrowful Empty Mountain. The performance is by Dai Ja on dizi with the China Broadcast Chinese Orchestra under Peng Jiapeng, recorded in 2006. It can be found on a Chinese double CD dedicated to this composer, entitled Listen to the Mountain - The Music of Guo Wenjing.
 Cello, the one instrument in this series where one might start to question the definition of unusual in this connection, as there are many cello concertos by noteworthy composers, in particular in the 19th and even more in the 20th century. Still, a google search shows that it lags behind the violin and piano as concertante instrument, by a considerable amount. I have chosen a very rare concerto for this beautiful instrument, the "concerto ostinato", by the Japanese composer Yasushi Akutagawa. It is played by Kenichiro Yasuda and the New Symphony Orchestra under the composer, from a Fontec CD that is no longer available.
 Coloratura soprano, seriously. A stretch? Soviet composer Reinhold Gliere did not think so, as he created a beautiful coloratura concerto in 1942 - the only other composer that I am aware of to have composed this type of concerto after him is Germaine Tailleferre. The Gliere concerto is performed in the selected sample by Joan Sutherland and the London Symphony Orchestra under Richard Bonynge, from a Decca CD.
 Turntables, another baffling choice for the concertante instrument. It is easy to dismiss this as a (bad) musical joke, but the BBC considered this concerto worthy of inclusion in their famous Proms concerts a few years ago. The composer's name might have helped: Gabriel Prokofiev, grandson of the grandmaster himself. I do not have this concerto on CD, but it can be found on YouTube. The soloist is DJ Switch, who performs with the National Youth Orchestra.
 Piccolo, the smallest member of the regular orchestral wood wind instrument section. Vivaldi was I think the first to write a concerto for this instrument, with Peter Maxwell Davies probably being the most prominent of more recent composers in this respect. I have opted for the 2001 piccolo concerto by Avner Dorman, taken from a Naxos CD. The soloist is Mindy Kaufman, who performs with the Metropolis Ensemble under Andrew Cyr.
 Electric violin, the first amplified instrument in this series. Perhaps not an instrument one would expect a major classical music composer to write for, but living legend John Adams proved the exception to that rule. His Dharma at Big Sur is a fascinating concerto, performed by Tracy Silverman on the electric violin and the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the composer (from a Nonesuch CD).
 Basset horn, a distant family member of the clarinet. It makes an occasional appearance in the oeuvre of classical age and early romantic composers (Mozart, Mendelssohn, Dvorak) and has featured in more recent works by the likes of Sessions and Stockhausen. Concertos for the instrument are extremely rare; I have only found the one I featured in this post, by Alessandro Rolla (Concerto in F Major BI. 528 for basset horn and orchestra, around 1800). It is performed by Denis Zanchetta and the Milan Classical Chamber Orchestra under Massimiliano Caldi (from a Dynamic CD).
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