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Rachel Barton Pine - Violin Concertos by Black Composers Through the Centuries is a delightful album / Classical Candor

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Music of Bologne, Lafitte, Coleridge-Taylor, and Price. Rachel Barton Pine, violin; Encore Chamber Orchestra, Daniel Hege, conductor; Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Jonathon Heyward, conductor. Cedille Records CDR 90000 214.

Classical Candor's John J. Puccio writes….Cedille Records reached back into their archives for several of the items on this album and recorded a brand-new selection to wrap it up. Moreover, considering it represents the work of four different composers, it offers a generous playing time. It helps, of course, that each of the violin concertos offered here is fairly brief, but, still, we get over seventy-three minutes of music. And fine music it is, too. American violinist Rachel Barton Pine performs the first three pieces with the Encore Chamber Orchestra, Daniel Hege conducting, and the final piece with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Jonathon Heyward conducting.

Obviously, the purpose of the album is to showcase the talents of black composers through the past few centuries, composers who might otherwise go unnoticed or whose light may begin to fade without enough public exposure. It’s a delightful album, the selections arranged chronologically from the eighteenth through twentieth centuries, and it provides much for one to enjoy.

The first item on the program is the Violin Concerto in A major, Op. 5, No. 2, a piece written in 1775 by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799). Bologne was a French violinist, conductor, and composer whom the public considered the greatest violinist in France at the time; in fact, his fans called him “The Black Mozart.” (Ms. Barton-Pine notes, however, that he was older than Mozart by almost ten years and probably inspired the Austrian composer; therefore Mozart should rightly be called “The White Bologne.”) Whatever, Bologne’s concerto is charming, and Ms. Barton-Pine seems to enjoy it immensely.

After a typically lengthy classical introduction the violin enters sweetly, almost tenderly, and continues that way throughout. While it is not music that sticks long in memory, it is music to impress one at the time of listening, which it certainly does. What’s more, Maestro Daniel Hege and the Encore players show plenty of pizzazz accompanying her. A lovely, amiable Largo forms the center of the piece, and then it concludes with a lively Rondeau, gracious, courtly, yet playful.

The second selection is the Violin Concerto in F-sharp minor, written in 1864 by the Cuban-French violinist and composer Jose White Lafitte (1836-1918). The work is highly virtuosic, and as we might expect from a Romantic concerto, more dramatic than Bologne’s piece. Ms. Barton-Pine does it up in fine style. It, too, has a lengthy orchestral prelude before the introduction of the violin, but when Barton-Pine does enter it is with a striking flourish. Still, the piece is not overdone, not histrionic, just agreeably operatic in tone, with Barton-Pine smoothly negotiating its many twists and turns.

Next comes the little Romance in G major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 39, written in 1899 by the British composer and conductor Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912). Unlike Bologne and Lafitte, Coleridge-Taylor’s works, especially his Hiawatha cantatas, have remained popular to this day. The Romance projects a gracefully wistful mood, nicely captured by Ms. Barton-Pine’s artfully gentle playing, which never sentimentalizes the music.

The disc ends with the Violin Concerto No. 2, one of the last compositions (1952) by the American classical composer, pianist, and music teacher Florence Price (1887-1953). It is notable that Ms. Price was the first Black woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer and to have a work of hers played by a major symphony orchestra. Here, as befits a twentieth-century piece of music, Ms. Barton-Pine is accompanied by a larger ensemble, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra led by Maestro Jonathan Heyward. Accordingly, it sounds bigger than the previous three numbers. The mood throughout is elegant, warm, and tenderhearted, with Ms. Barton-Pine’s violin always a compassionate communicator.

Producer James Ginsburg and engineers Lawrence Rock, Hedd Morfett-Jones, and Bill Maylone recorded the music at the Chapel of St. John the Beloved, Arlington Heights, Illinois in June 1997 and (for the Price selection) Scotland’s Studio, Glasgow in January 2022. The sound in the first three numbers is mellifluously rounded and natural, with an especially good, resonant distancing and a healthy dynamic range to make it appear real. The Price concerto is done up closer than the earlier tracks, with a slightly greater emphasis on sonic detailing.

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