Naxos 8573808

GROSLOT Violin Concerto1. Concerto for Orchestra — 1Joanna Kurkowicz (vn); Robert Groslot, cond; Brussels Philharmonic — Naxos 8573808 (60:08)

Belgian composer, pianist, conductor, Robert Groslot was born in 1951. There are many recordings which feature him as a pianist in solo works and chamber music, as a conductor, and, in that impressive role of pianist and conductor. As a pianist he can be heard in music covering a wide range of repertoire, from the music of Haydn, Bruch, Inghelbrecht, to Messiaen, Penderecki, Rachmaninoff, and Stravinsky. He can be heard in the dual role of pianist and conductor in works by Chopin, Weber and Mendelssohn. He is also a highly respected educator. In 1995 he was appointed Artistic Director of the Royal Conservatory of Antwerp.

Few of his compositions have been given commercial recordings. However, his website offers one the opportunity to hear many of his works. Reviewing his list of works, it appears that the majority of his compositions have been written in the last eight years. He has been highly prolific as of late with Concertos for Horn; Bassoon; Organ; Double Bass; English Horn; Trumpet; Oboe; Marimba; Viola; Harp; Guitar; Trombone; Piccolo; Saxophone; Cello; Piano, works for chamber ensemble, concert band, etc. His output in recent years has been more than some composers accomplish in a lifetime.

After listening to his Violin Concerto and Concerto for Orchestra, I auditioned several of his other works at his website. In general, his style is mostly tonal with a fair amount of regularity in the length of the phrase. I found his music to be quite accessible, even if the thematic material is fragmentary in nature. While his writing seems a bit episodic at times, it is music that grabs your attention through its intensity and depth. The ideas exhibited such character to the extent that my mind did not wander. On one occasion, there were a few measures that reminded me of the music of Shostakovich (at the end of the Violin Concerto), and, on another, a few measures of the music of Danielpour (at the end of the Concerto for Orchestra).  Yet, otherwise, the music exhibited a personality of its own.

The Violin Concerto dates from 2010. Cast in a single movement, it is divided into several sections. Groslot has the gift of being able to write music that has one looking forward to each measure. The opening is highly dramatic and brilliantly orchestrated. I was immediately drawn to the music. Other sections are filled with rhythmic intensity while others with wonderfully lyric expression, and, at times, nobility. I found his subtle use of orchestral color in the lyrical sections to be done with immense sensitivity. It is virtuosic music in the best sense of the word. The relationship between the various sections was not always obvious to me. It could just as easily have been given the title of Rhapsody. The recapitulation of the opening at the close of the work was very effective. However, I did want a bit more punch at the final cadence.

My first acquaintance with the playing of Joanna Kurkowicz was her recordings of the complete Violin Concertos by Bacewicz. Bacewicz’s compositional style evolved greatly over the years. When I first heard those recordings, I was amazed that Kurkowicz was not only comfortable with those different styles, but seemed born to each of them.

While Groslot is prolific as a composer, Kurkowicz is prolific when it comes to commissioning and introducing new works. She has given premieres of concertos by Groslot, Velazquez, and Koplevitz and chamber music by Schuller, Ruders, Bacewicz, Clarke, Kechley, Andrews, Gawlick and many others. In great demand as an educator, she currently teaches at the New England Conservatory of Music, Tufts University and Williams College.

Listening to her recording of the Groslot, I could easily run out of superlatives to describe her playing. I sensed an amazing intellect, emotional depth and passion in her playing. In her performance you sense she sees that each note has a purpose and that she understands clearly where those notes fit into the line. She also has a great sense of how each idea features into the entire musical argument. Her use of vibrato is minimal and is applied with great discretion. The tone of her playing is a remarkable combination of warmth and clarity. Her bowing technique and intonation leave nothing to be desired. Why she is not appearing regularly as soloist with the major orchestras of the world is a mystery to me. The only rationale that comes to mind is that even though her repertoire list includes many of the standards, much of it favors less-familiar works. Based upon what information I could find about her, she does not seem greatly interested in a career devoted to the frequent repetition of the standards. While I sense she would be capable of giving fantastic performances of the concertos by Brahms, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, etc., I will look forward to following her journey as she explores the literature. I see her recordings of the Bacewicz and Groslot as wonderful gifts. I hope she will continue to give us many more such treasures.

The Concerto for Orchestra is in four movements: Exordium; Hoketus; Nachtmusik and Conclusion. Groslot’s choice of the title Exordium for the first movement suggests that he thinks of it as an introduction. At its best, it is an exploration of timbre. Its rhetoric sounded fragmented to me. There were times when I felt like I was listening more to gesture than substance. Perhaps that was his intent, but one is not used to hearing a succession of so many gestures in tonal music. Once I could abandon my expectations of a more traditional musical argument I began to find greater value in the music and came to hear it as wonderful, engaging and compelling movement. The music made sense on its own terms and not due to an expectable, overtly discernable structure.

The second movement, Hoketus, is based on the technique, or as some writers have suggested, the musical form, of hocket (hoketus). According to the Harvard Dictionary of Music, hocket comes from medieval polyphony of the 13th and 14th Centuries; “a peculiar device consisting of the rapid alternation of two (rarely three) voices with single notes or short groups of notes, one part having a rest while the other sounds.” Groslot keeps to this notion and produces a movement that is quite inventive and imaginative even if the focus on that one technique seemed to somewhat outstay its welcome.

Nachtmusik is music of shifting moods and a variety of ideas. Sometimes the music is playful, and, at other times, serene and seductive. There is also a bit of terror in his vision of the night, yet that moment passes quickly.

Conclusion moves with a somewhat clearer sense of direction, which is provided by the rhythmic intensity and tempo of the music. Yet, it is also sectional. While normally, such writing could seem poorly conceived, as the overall musical argument might not be obvious, each section had a momentum of its own that it fed into the progression of the music. No doubt, an examination of the score might show more thematic continuity than was revealed in several listenings. Regardless of any questions I might have regarding the structure of his work, Groslot is a composer who writes inventive music that exhibits a great depth of expression, and provides rewarding listening.

The playing of the Brussels Philharmonic is superb. Listening to the recording, it is clear that Groslot is also an excellent conductor. This is great music making. The recorded sound brings every nuance of the orchestration to light. The English translation by Fiona J. Stroker-Gale of liner notes by Tom Janssens is, at its best, awkward. The notes “lost something in translation.” My suggestion is to listen to the music and forget the liner notes. As of this writing, I have listened to the Violin Concerto eight times. The first four were for the purpose of preparing my review, the rest, for the sheer joy of listening.  Karl F. Miller

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