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CD Feature/ Rachel Barton Pine: "Beethoven & Clement Violin Concertos"

img  Tobias

You don’t need to explain to Rachel Barton Pine how to get her kicks from Classical Music. Already at the age of six, she was watching Itzhak Perlman perform Beethoven’s first Violin Concerto on TV, mesmerised by its endearing momentousness and the life-changing impact of its melodic lyricism. Years have passed since then and even though Barton Pine has since gone on to become one of the USA’s most prolific and versatile instrumentalist, that first deciding moment always loomed high on her horizon, a personal North Star guiding her on to new shores and to a career grounded both in the intricacies of Classical music and the emotional thrusts of Rock.

The aforementioned Concerto is now considered a cornerstone of the Violin repertoire and as with almost every classic, there is a story to its fame. To put it blandly, the piece was first considered a relative failure, the epic proportions of its opening movement being considered hackneyed and the cohesive powers exorcised by its Leitmotiv considered trivial repetition. For decades, in fact, noone really wanted to play it all and its ascencion to the throne of every performer’s program is not so much a renaissance but a gradual revolution, sparked by a quantum leap in understanding – contempt and boredom seamlessly sublimating into admiration and excitment. 

The story to the first Violin Concerto, however, would be incomplete without mentioning the name of Franz Clement – a mentor to the young Beethoven, a dazzlingly virtuoso Violinist, a prodigy with photographic memory and yet another sad example of an artists headed for an early acme and slow, painful decline. Incidentally, however, Clement was also an accomplished composer, even though his initial popularity as a soloist overshadowed and stifled his skills as a writer. Only a year prior to Beethoven, Clement, too, published a Violin Concerto and combined its public premiere with the staging of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony – the former turning into a politely applauded success and the latter’s critical failure demanding serious revisions.

Whether or not Beethoven’s Concerto was a reaction to the Clement’s, whether he was encouraged to write it by his former teacher or even commissioned it, is up to historians to decide. As the author of the highly instructive liner notes, Clive Brown, points out on paper and Rachel Barton-Pine passionately demonstrates in practise, there were not only the obvious stylistic similarities between these two pieces dictated by their chronological proximity, but direct thematic references between them, which could hint at them openly commenting upon each other. If this were indeed true, of course, it would shed completely new light on the importance of very particular external influences on Beethoven’s script as well as on the historical position of Clement.

The evaluation of Brown’s theories will take time. It certainly didn’t help that the Clement Violin Concerto has not been performed in the restored version presented on this disc for approximately two hundred years. First impressions show this to be a sweeping work, which squeezes just as much orchestral magnificence as chambermusical intimacy from its instrumentation and whose thematic appeal is certainly not second to Beethoven’s. Even though its first movement is not quite as monumental, this is compensated by the richness of its motivic material and the wealth of its two ensuing parts, whose emphasis may lie just a little more on the slowly simmering Larghetto than on the closing Rondo.

I am not a great fan of trying to compare discoveries like this one in the typical lesser god vs genius kind of way. You can tell just by reading their comments that both Brown and Barton-Pine are so utterly in love with Beethoven that Clement could never fully come on eye level with him. “It shows a degree of imagination, seriousness of purpose, and flair that is worthy of many a better known composer; it teems with felicitous ideas that sustain the listener’s interest”, Brown notes, and: “It is not unworthy to stand beside the masterpiece he helped to inspire.” When listened to side by side, indeed, both compositions develop ther very own charm, with Clement’s occasional stylistic leaps into Baroque territory stealing the show.

Interestingly, as much as she was searching for hidden parallels, Barton-Pine’s take on these pieces are strikingly different. In the Beethoven, she displays a romantic reticence, never exploding and engaging in a symbiotic dialogue with Jose Serebrier and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. With Clement, she is much more the soloist, her dervish-like cadenzas binding the entire score together with their gravitational energy. Throughout, however, her tone is instantly recognisable: Fine and elegant, flexible and precise, it sounds as though she were engraving acoustic calligraphy on marble paper with dark ink – while the fluidity and clarity of her strokes make her seem like a musical figureskater.

Certainly, a project like this one can be seen as contributing to general debates on mutual inspiration and on the almost tender relationship between Clement and Beethoven in particular. But the rich detail of both these interpretations indicates that, most likely, they are the fulfillment of a personal dream. As a listener, just like Rachel Barton Pine as a performer, you’re guarenteed to get your kicks from this disc.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Rachel Barton Pine
Homepage: Cedille Records

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