Friday, June 30, 2017

Unusual concertos 31-40: From tar to didgeridoo

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.

[31] Tar. This is a Persian lute-like instrument that has spread all over the Caucasus region. Predictably, there is little classical music concertante repertoire for this uncommon instrument, but I have found one: the concerto by composer Khanmamedov from Azerbaijan. It is played by Ramiz Gulyev and the Azerbaijan State Symphony Orchestra under Adigozalov on a Boonloom CD.

[32] Electric guitar. Actually two guitars or the price of one. The electric guitar has not penetrated the classical market to a large extent, and the only concerto in my collection is the one by Terje Rypdal, which is actually for two of these instruments. It is played by Terje Rypdal and Ronni Le Tekro as soloists and the Riga Festival Orchestra under Sne on an ECM CD.

[33] Tap dancer. Seriously, this is not an April Fool's post, like the tuned clogs concerto I pulled off some years ago. There has actually been a composer of reasonable standing who has composed a concerto for tap dancer and orchestra: Morton Gould. A curiosity rather than brilliant music, but fun to listen to (and even more to watch as well). I have a recording by Lane Alexander and the Czech National Symphony Orchestra under Paul Freeman on an Albany CD.

[34] Birds. The use of pre-recorded bird song in classical music goes back to Respighi, who used a turntable with recorded nightingale sounds in his symphonic poem Pini di Roma. Contemporary Finnish grandmaster Einojuhani Rautavaara composed his Cantus Articus, subtitled Concerto for Birds and Orchestra, in 1972. The three movements feature tape recordings of birdsong collected near the Arctic Circle and on the bogs of Liminka in Finland. It is played by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Lintu, on a Naxos CD.

[35] Alphorn. The famous instrument of farmers in Switzerland and other alpine countries. Due to its limited aural palette, this beast has not featured in many concertante works since the first attempts by Leopold Mozart. I have selected the concertino rustico for alphorn and string orchestra by Hungarian composer Ferenc Farkas, dating from 1977. It is played by Jozsef Molnar and the the Capella Istropolitana under Schneider, on a Naxos CD.

[36] Harp. This brings us back to regular orchestral instruments. It surprises me that the harp has not become more popular as a concertante instrument, since the days of Handel. Still, a few composers of name have had a go at it, such as Gliere, Ginastera, Mathias, Rautavaara, and the best of all, Alwyn. His Lyra Angelica is in my opinion one of the most beautiful concertos of all time, regardless of instrument. I have selected the substantial harp concerto by Ireland's Philip Martin from 1993. It is played by Andreja Malir and the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland under de Roo, on a Marco Polo CD.

[37] Sitar. This exotic instrument is foremost used in Indian classical music, and has gained acceptance world-wide since its introduction in pop and rock music by the Beatles and others in the sixties. I only know of one concerto for the sitar, by Indian composer Ravi Shankar, dating back to 1976. It is a substantial work, lasting 30-40 minutes, depending on interpretation. I have selected a version played by Ravi Shankar himself and the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Previn, on an EMI CD.

[38] Double bass. This is of course a regular classical orchestra instrument, but not the most logical one to write a concerto for. Still, it was surprisingly popular in the classicist period, with concertos by Haydn (lost), Wagenseil, Vanhal, Kozeluch and others. The 20th century saw a slight revival, with concertos by for instance Tubin, Aho and Skalkottas. Possibly the most famous composer of a double bass concerto in the past century is Hans Werner Henze. His 1966 composition is a substantial 30 minutes work in three movements, a perfect example of an unusual concerto sounding like the most logical choice in the world. My version is by Gary Karr and the English Chamber Orchestra under the composer, on an DG CD.

[39] Koto. This is the national instrument of Japan, akin to the Chinese zheng. A koto usually has 13 strings that are strung over 13 movable bridges, but versions with 20 strings are used as well. I recently came across one of the rare concertos for this instrument, by Daron Hagen. His 2011 composition Genji is a 28 minutes concerto for 20-string koto and orchestra in five parts. My version is by Yumi Kurosawa and the Orchestra of the Swan under David Curtis, on an MSR CD.

[40] Didgeridoo. This is the national instrument of the indigenous Australians, and unlike any other instrument I know. Most of us will know this 1-3 m long beast from New Age records, if at all, and its use in classical music is predictably scarce. The most famous composer who wrote parts for it is undoubtedly Peter Sculthorpe, for instance in his composition Earth Cry. For a real concerto, we have to look for the likes of Sean O'Boyle, who composed a fairly popular concerto for didgeridoo a few years ago. This concerto is in four movements, titled EarthWindWater, and Fire. My version is by William Barton and the Queensland Symphony under the composer, on an ABC Classics CD.

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