Concerto superbo!

At the time of sitting down to write this edition of Thought for the Week, I decided to consult the Naxos monthly bestsellers  lists and consider writing a retrospective about our 2017 market leaders. While reviewing the January-October rankings, two things stood out.

First, in no fewer than three of those months, the bestselling release was the Naxos 30th Anniversary Collection boxed set (8.503293), which proved gratifyingly popular in this milestone year for the label.

Second, in all the other months, the bestselling recording was in the concerto category. The genre has a clear appeal, setting the stand-alone virtuosity of the soloist against a judicious integration with the orchestra. So, in case you missed out on any of those bestselling items, here’s a quick survey of the works and performances in question; and we’ll throw in a review comment here and there for good measure.

In January it was Boris Giltburg that led the field with his recording of Shostakovich’s two piano concertos. It became MusicWeb International’s Recording of the Month, supported by this comment:

“The recorded sound is excellent … the performances are top notch and, importantly, the mood is impeccably judged by a team of expert Shostakovich interpreters.”

Boris Giltburg introduces the First Piano Concerto as follows: “The work was completed in 1933, shortly before the sustained national and international success of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk brought him widespread recognition and admiration from audience and critics alike. In his letters from that period there is no premonition of the dark days that were to follow due to the regime’s (or, quite likely, Stalin’s own) displeasure with his music. We find him jaunty, cocky, even slightly arrogant.”

The opening of the finale exemplifies that sentiment.

Henning Kraggerud’s February release of violin concertos by Halvorsen and Nielsen sported an extra interest factor. In his day, Johan Halvorsen was one of Norway’s most talented violinists and an internationally renowned conductor and composer. His Violin Concerto was described by contemporary critics as ‘an outstanding work’ and performed to great acclaim in 1909. It was then considered lost, only to be rediscovered in 2015 in the archive of its original soloist, Kathleen Parlow (1890–1963).

Westdeutscher Rundfunk commented: “Sometimes … true treasures slumber in archives or in attics. John Halvorsen’s Violin Concerto is one of them…”

Here’s the opening of the slow movement.

Fanfare had this to say about the soloist on March’s bestseller: “Descharmes is wonderful. He captures to perfection the airy meringue and sweet fillings of Saint-Saëns’s confections, and he dazzles with brilliant technique, lightness of touch, and tonal finesse.”

The context was Romain Descharmes’ recording of Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2. Of the five piano concertos that Saint-Saëns wrote, the Second is the most popular and is widely performed. The composer bends a knee throughout the work by making reference to several composers, including Mozart, Fauré and Mendelssohn. The opening of the first movement clearly summons up the spirit of J. S. Bach.

The second volume of Moreno Torroba’s guitar concertos stole the show in April. Not surprising, considering that the release featured the legendary soloist Pepe Romero.  Here’s a sample of his artistry from the opening movement of Homenaje a la seguidilla that confirms The Whole Note’s observation of “Superb playing and idiomatic orchestral support”.

July saw a rarity in the release of three concertos by Wenchen Qin, one of China’s most influential composers. His Suona Concerto features the country’s traditional double-reed instrument and requires bravura performances from both orchestra and suona, played here by Qianyuan Zhang.

Boris Giltburg made a second appearance in the honours list in September and his release was warmly welcomed by Gramophone: “Boris Giltburg certainly has something fresh to say in Rachmaninov’s Second [Piano] Concerto, that well-worn, much-loved masterpiece, and in his new Naxos recording with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Carlos Miguel Prieto, he says it elegantly and eloquently.” And you can add enthusiasm to the elegance and eloquence by watching this short preview of the recording.

Finally, October’s bestseller featured concertos for three unconventional instruments: amplified cello,  baritone saxophone and … knifonium. If you’re unfamiliar with the instrument, you might make it a New Year Resolution to find out more. Meanwhile, hear it featured in an extract from Olli Virtaperko’s Ambrosian Delights.


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