Britten and Veale: Violin Concertos

0 of 5 stars

Benjamin Britten
Violin Concerto
John Veale
Violin Concerto

Lydia Mordkovitch (violin)
BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Richard Hickox

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: June 2001

John Veale appears to be another of those tonal British composers who got pushed aside in the ’sixties – he writes in his booklet note of “having been destroyed by the great avant-garde explosion”. This followed significant exposure a decade earlier: Veale composed the music for The Spanish Gardener and The Purple Plain (amongst other films) and had premieres conducted by Barbirolli, Boult and Groves.

Veale completed his Violin Concerto in 1984. Like Britten’s it’s in three movements lasting around 35 minutes. Essentially romantic, Veale’s expression is yearning and nostalgic, the introductory orchestral flourish answered by a rhapsodic soloist, the orchestra’s foreboding softening to lyrical, emotional music. The 15-minute first movement is a procession of reflection (’moderato’) and activity (’allegro’), suppressed anger coming to the surface at times. The second movement – ’Lament’ – is described by its composer as “love music, the emphasis as much on the agony as on the ecstasy”. It’s a beautiful movement, the soloist somewhat ’numbed’ in expression. It’s here that echoes of Samuel Barber – fleetingly heard in the first movement – come to the fore: Barber is a favourite composer of Veale’s, so too is William Walton, another behind-the-scenes influence in this work. The finale is the most outgoing movement, rhythmically alert, with nostalgic interludes. The concerto as a whole is sincere, communicative, quite personal and well worth getting to know. Lydia Mordkovitch is a passionate advocate; what she occasionally lacks in finesse she makes up for in commitment. Fans of the Barber and Walton concertos needn’t hesitate; Veale doesn’t quite have their memorable ideas, but he’s closely related in atmosphere and feeling.

Britten wrote his concerto in America in 1939. It’s better known of course, and listening to it after the Veale enforces Britten’s greater individuality. The composer’s own recording with Mark Lubotsky (Decca) has strong claims as first choice. Ida Haendel has been a consistent champion of it; her EMI recording with Paavo Berglund is a wonderful document. Britten aficionados won’t want to be without Theo Olaf and Barbirolli’s recording of the original version (also EMI – Barbirolli conducted the New York premiere in 1940).

Mordkovitch and Hickox certainly present a brooding ambience; she, combustible, threatening tone to get the most out her instrument. She’s sensitive too and the final passacaglia is built surely to an emotional release and calm conclusion. This vivid performance, recorded in the warm space of Blackheath Hall, makes a thoughtful coupling with John Veale’s likeable concerto. Might the first recording of the Veale lead to an 80th-birthday CD next year and an airing of one of his three symphonies?

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