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8.557016 - VIEUXTEMPS, H.: Violin Concertos Nos. 5, 6 and 7
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Henry Vieuxtemps (1820-1881)

Henry Vieuxtemps (1820-1881)

Violin Concertos Nos. 5 –7

The son of a weaver, amateur violinist and violin-maker, Henri Vieuxtemps was born in the Belgian town of Verviers in 1820 and had his first violin lessons at the age of four from his father, followed by study in his native town with a locally respected teacher. At the age of six he appeared as soloist in a concerto by Rode and after further success at home he embarked with his father and teacher on a concert tour of the Low Countries. A successful appearance in Brussels led the violinist Charles de Bériot to offer lessons there and the boy later accompanied his new teacher to Paris, making his first concert appearance there in 1829, again in a concerto by Rode. With the revolution of the following year and de Bériot’s marriage and departure on tour, Vieuxtemps, following his teacher’s advice, returned to Brussels, where he worked on his own, developing his technique and his musical knowledge and taste, not least through the duets he played with de Bériot’s sister-in-law, Pauline García, later Viardot and mother of the violinist Paul Viardot. A year younger than Vieuxtemps, she was a piano pupil of Liszt, although, like her sister, she made her later career as a singer.  A concert tour of Germany in 1833 brought friendship with the violinist-composer Louis Spohr and in Vienna acquaintance with those who had worked with Beethoven, whose Violin Concerto he performed in Vienna in March 1834, after a mere two weeks of study. In Leipzig he was acclaimed by Schumann, who compared the boy to Paganini, whom he met in London in 1834. In Paris once more he took composition lessons from Antonín Reicha, who directed his attention to the composition of concertos, resulting in the Violin Concerto in F sharp minor, Op.19, of 1836, later published as Violin Concerto No. 2 (Naxos 8.554114).

            Vieuxtemps made his first visit to Russia in 1837, returning there the following year and appearing in concerts, after prolonged recuperation from an illness contracted in the course of the journey. It was in Russia that he wrote the Violin Concerto No.1 in E major, Op.10I, (Naxos 8.554506).  The work was heard there and at home in Brussels, before, in 1841, Vieuxtemps introduced it to the public in Paris, winning general critical acclaim for a work that added a new dimension to the current violin repertoire, which had tended rather towards technically brilliant variations and fantasies on familiar operatic melodies.

            Concert tours continued in the following years. In 1844 Vieuxtemps was in America, wooing audiences with variations on Yankee Doodle. In Vienna and London he appeared in Beethoven quartets and in concerts there and elsewhere in Europe. In 1846, however, he accepted an invitation to move to St Petersburg as court violinist and soloist in the Imperial Theatre. He remained there until 1852 and it was during this period that he wrote his Violin Concerto No. 4 in

D minor, Op.31 (Naxos 8.554506). In a busy career, he continued to compose, appeared as a soloist in concerts, gave lessons and took part in chamber music recitals. In particular, he added a more classical dimension to violin repertoire. Beethoven’s Violin Concerto was now part of his repertoire, and he also gave a performance of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, which was still a novelty. With Anton Rubinstein he was able to play Beethoven’s Violin Sonatas and appeared together with him in concerts in Paris, after leaving Russia in 1852 to resume a largely peripatetic career as a virtuoso. He was eventually prevailed upon to accept a teaching position at the Brussels Conservatoire, where his own teacher de Bériot had taught, followed by Hubert Léonard, settling in Brussels again in 1871, but continuing to give concerts.

            It was in 1873 that Vieuxtemps suffered a stroke that paralysed his right arm. He moved to Paris and his violin class was taken over in 1875 by Wieniawski. Composition was still possible and gradually he found himself able to play chamber music again, at least in private. In 1879, finally giving up any hope of resuming his career in Brussels, he moved to Algeria, where his daughter and son-in-law had settled. Here he continued to compose, although frustrated by his inability to play what he had written or, in general, to hear it played. He died in June 1881.

            Vieuxtemps was undoubtedly one of the greatest violinists of his time, combining superb technical command with deeper musical understanding.  He may be seen as representative of the Franco-Belgian school of players, the successor of de Bériot, while those who were taught by him or fell under his direct influence include his pupil Eugène Ysaÿe, Jenö Hubay and Leopold Auer.

            The fifth of Vieuxtemps’ completed violin concertos, the Concerto in A minor, Op.37, was written in 1858 and 1859 for Hubert Léonard at the Brussels Conservatoire, who wanted the work as a competition piece. The work was much admired by Léonard and by the legendary Leopold Auer. The three movements are joined together to make what is virtually a single extended movement. The first movement starts with an orchestral exposition, introducing three contrasting themes, before the dramatic entry of the soloist, who proceeds to a lyrical theme. A second theme for the soloist, in C major, offers a further lyrical element, which the soloist accompanies, during its repetition by the orchestra.  The extended development brings further opportunities for virtuosity, before the cadenza, of which Vieuxtemps offers two versions. The second of these, played here, makes contrapuntal use of elements already heard, in an inventive display. There is a brief Moderato link to the lyrical Adagio, with its moving A minor theme. A modulation to A major leads to a C major melody from Grétry’s opera Lucile, an allusion that earned the work its nickname. There follows the short A minor Allegro con fuoco, with which the concerto ends.

            The Violin Concerto No. 6 in G major, Op.47, and the Violin Concerto in A minor, Op.49, belong to the last year of Vieuxtemps’ life, spent at Mustapha Supérieur in Algeria. He set some store by these works, although he was unable to make any final revisions that might have been possible had he been able to hear the hoped for performance by Eugène Ysaÿe. He dedicated the sixth concerto to the Czech violinist Wilma Normand-Neruda and the seventh to Jenö Hubay, both of whom were among his visitors in Algeria.  The first of the two makes use of an unusual four-movement form. It opens with an abridged sonata-form movement, with an exposition for the orchestra and for the soloist, the latter entrusted with the expected lyrical material.  The second movement is a gentle Pastorale, followed by an Intermezzo in which the characteristic Siciliano rhythm is given to the soloist in 12/8 compound metre, while the orchestra is in simple quadruple metre, an unusual experiment in contrasting rhythms. The concerto ends with a final Rondo, its charming principal melody almost something from lighter operatic repertoire.

   The seventh concerto makes marginally greater demands on virtuosity. The first movement, briefly introduced by the orchestra, offers the two themes of traditional sonata form, which return in recapitulation in E minor and A major respectively, leading to a brilliant coda. The slow movement, with the apt title Mélancolie, is in A minor. It leads to a final movement with an opening Tarantella theme, followed by a theme of Spanish implication, echoed in its orchestral accompaniment. 


Keith Anderson

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