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Pierre JALBERT (b. 1967)
Violin Concerto (2017) [26:22]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Violin Concerto No.1 in A minor, BWV1041 [13:25]
Arvo PÄRT (b. 1935)
Fratres (Version for violin, string orchestra and percussion) (1977/92) [10:29]
Pēteris VASKS (b. 1946)
Lonely Angel (Vientuļais Eņģelis) (1992/2006) [13:23]
Margaret Batjer (violin)
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra/Jeffrey Kahane
rec. live, March 2018, Alex Theater, Glendale, California and Royce Hall, UCLA, Los Angeles, (Jalbert); 2018, Zipper Hall, Colburn School of Music, Los Angeles
Reviewed in stereo and SACD surround
BIS BIS-2309 SACD [63:41]

It’s a bit of an odd selection, this; I was primarily drawn to it by the new Pierre Jalbert concerto. I remember him winning the BBC’s old composition competition ‘Masterprize’ in 2001 with a terrific piece called In Aeternam. Since then, on this side of the pond at least, there’s been something approaching a long radio silence, so it’s been good to catch up and his sturdy concerto seems very accomplished. It comprises two movements of similar length. In the first of these, ethereal, starlit percussion and string textures bathe a terse, ambiguous melody. Jalbert’s opening gambit is thus sumptuously alluring; its detail registers most clearly via the SACD layer. The first half of this panel continues in this mysterious, uneasy vein. The glowing orchestral colours are tactfully delivered by the LAPO, and merge seamlessly into a swifter section from about 5:54. This moves toward a brief cadenza before Jalbert revisits the movement’s rapt opening. The rising scales and glissandi that end the movement are most impressive. The soloist, Margaret Batjer is completely inside Jalbert’s idiom. His solo writing, while taxing, is fluent, occasionally virtuosic but always attractive while his orchestration is perfectly balanced throughout. The chimes that ring out at key points in the movement delineate the episodes and help the listener orientate.

The second movement is marked simply ‘with great energy’. It comes across as an agitated moto perpetuo, albeit one that’s rather fractured and stop/start. While it’s certainly propulsive I think the melodic material lacks the distinctive flavours Jalbert cooks up in the first movement, though the broken momentum that’s generated builds convincingly to an unusually tart cadenza before the concerto’s abrupt conclusion. On the face of it the movement delivers something of a white-knuckle ride but it lacks real memorability. (In terms of its pace and structure much of this movement seemed to resemble a piece from my distant past which at first I struggled to put my finger on; it turned out to be the magnificent Violin Concerto No 1 by the late Stephen Paulus, which was recorded by William Preucil and the Atlanta Symphony under Yoel Levi way back in 1990 on New World Records - NW 363-2). Nonetheless Margaret Batjer’s energetic commitment to Jalbert’s new work is unstinting while the LACO under Jeffrey Kahane offer diamantine clarity in support. The BIS recording in both formats is characteristically outstanding.

The Bach A minor concerto is given a neat and tidy reading. Batjer and Kahane offer no truly profound insights, but the former’s violin sings sweetly and sounds deft and clean. The LA accompaniment is nicely balanced, with the harpsichord pleasingly integrated. The central Andante is certainly the pick of the movements; Batjer’s playing is suave and soulful, with Kahane’s direction discreet and attentive. I prefer the stereo mix, but that’s not to say the surround isn’t effective. It’s just not as intimate. While I suppose the disc per se provides a niche vehicle for violin and orchestra enthusiasts, I’m not really convinced the Bach is a good fit.

Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, in what currently seems to be the preferred version (for violin, strings and percussion) emerges rather bashfully. Given the music’s ubiquity, this is no bad thing; it’s good to encounter a recording which effects a not dissimilar ambience to that projected in earlier, less mannered solo violin accounts by the likes of Kremer and Little with piano (on ECM and Warners respectively) and by Shaham with the strings as here (on DG). Batjer and Kahane seem determined to let the music speak for itself, which isn’t always the case. It sounds especially convincing in the multi-channel guise, with vivid, not overwhelming percussion. The strings of the LACO provide a backcloth of pure silk rather than thick treacle.

Pēteris Vasks’ Lonely Angel is a re-working of the fifth and final ‘Meditation’ movement from his String Quartet No 4. As its title suggests, the high-flung violin line shimmers and hovers above very Pärtian strings. I suppose it’s a bit twee to suggest it as a modern Baltic Lark Ascending but for me that’s the kind of groove it’s aiming at. I suppose if it catches the listener in a particular frame of mind (and if they were unfamiliar with similar Baltic repertoire) it might have an impact, but pleasant as it is, I’m afraid I find Vasks’ later style just a little too comfortable, and his material here seems rather bland. It’s certainly a long way from my first exposure to his music. His Vestijums (Message) for two pianos, percussion and strings was first broadcast in the UK in the early 1990s in Kris Rusmanis’ Baltic Triptych strand on Radio Three (Rusmanis later conducted it for Conifer Classics). I found that piece confrontational, exciting and profoundly moving then, and I still do. Either way, one can’t imagine a more persuasive account of Lonely Angel than Margaret Batjer’s on the present disc.

To summarise, the Jalbert concerto is certainly worth hearing. In themselves, the performances and recordings of the couplings are beyond serviceable – in the case of Fratres much more than that, but the programme itself just seems a bit odd. The booklet note is functionally informative – unusually for BIS it’s uncredited. All in all, this issue is the proverbial curate’s egg.

Richard Hanlon
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