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'Violin Concertos by Black Composers' is an indispensable addition to Rachel Barton Pine's 40 album discography / textura

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textura writes….In issuing an album of violin concertos by composers of African descent, Rachel Barton Pine could be seen to be capitalizing on the recent resurgence of interest in figures such as Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, William Grant Still, George Walker, and Florence Price. Said presumption would be wrong on a number of counts. Firstly, Violin Concertos by Black Composers Through the Centuries is a Pine release that in a slightly different form appeared two-and-a-half decades ago and has now been issued in a handsome twenty-fifth anniversary edition. As importantly, Pine is no follower but rather a prescient pioneer who long ago recognized what these composers have to offer and took major steps towards sharing that awareness with others. When the release of the original recording engendered an outpouring of requests for more information about the composers, her Rachel Barton Pine (RBP) Foundation founded its Music by Black Composers (MBC) initiative in 2001. Without question, her advocacy has done much to make the work of these under-appreciated artists known to modern listeners.

The first edition's pieces by Joseph Bologne (also known as Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges), José White Lafitte (also known as Joseph White), and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor return, with Pine's recent recording of Price's Violin Concerto No. 2 taking the place of the Concerto No. 1 in D major by Le Chevalier de Meude-Monpas, an eighteenth-century French composer who, recent research concluded, probably wasn't of African descent (the “Le Noir” appellation appended to his title referred, it turns out, not to his ethnicity but to his black horse). In light of that determination, Price's was selected as a more than credible replacement. Whereas the three original recordings feature the Encore Chamber Orchestra with Daniel Hege conducting, the Price work is performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Jonathon Heyward's direction.

Violin Concertos by Black Composers Through the Centuries advances chronologically, starting with Bologne's and ending with Price's. Pine reports that Bologne was not only the greatest violinist in France during his lifetime but the greatest swordsman too. He's also often referred to as “The Black Mozart,” but as he was older than Mozart and inspired him, Pine argues “it should really be the other way around, with Mozart as ‘The White Bologne.'” Regardless, there's little question that his three-part Violin Concerto in A major, Op. 5, No. 2 (1775) exudes a similar kind of character to a work by his famous counterpart. Hewing to the standard fast-slow-fast design, the “Allegro moderato” opens the work spiritedly with engaging melodies rapidly exchanged between the soloist and orchestra (strings only in this concerto). Virtuosity is demanded from the soloist in light-speed runs that Pine, naturally, executes with precision and authority; Bologne makes considerable demands on the ensemble's players too, however, in the numerous rapid passages that compose the movement. Lyrical and lilting, the central “Largo” is suitably graceful and in placing her violin so much at the forefront provides an excellent showcase for Pine's artistry. She impresses as much in the breezy “Rondeau,” which shows her operating at a staggeringly high level.

Lafitte's Violin Concerto in F-sharp minor (1864) also follows a three-movement plan, progressing as it does from the “Allegro” on through the “Adagio ma non troppo” and “Allegro moderato.” For the soloist, Lafitte's concerto is even more demanding than Bologne's in its wealth of double-stops and arpeggios, but again Pine meets the challenge with aplomb. She and the orchestra artfully entwine for the breathless “Allegro,” the movement elevated by her sweetly singing tone and cadenza-like articulations, after which the passionate adagio follows without pause, Pine leaping between registers and deploying trills and vibrato expressively. The rambunctious, rather Hungarian-flavoured finale is one of the album's most ear-catching, not only for the dazzling musicianship the writing demands for its realization but for the soloists's devilish opening statement.

While Pine had hoped to feature Coleridge-Taylor's Violin Concerto on the original recording, it was too long to fit and so included his Romance in G major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 39 (1899) in its place. Presented in one continuous movement, the work engages immediately for the warmth of its melodic grace and harmonious tone. Structured in sonata form, the Romance works through numerous episodes, Pine's commanding, vibrato-rich voice the element threading the parts together. Though it's often serene, turbulent moments emerge midway through the twelve-minute performance. Completed only a year before her death, Price's Violin Concerto No. 2 (1952) is similar to the Coleridge-Taylor piece for advancing through contrasting sections within a thematically rich single movement. It's a multi-scenic adventure distinguished by colourful orchestral texture and bravura cadenza-like passages for the soloist, the work a sterling example of Price's personality-rich writing and gift for weaving various stylistic strands and moods into an appealing tapestry. In a work by her, it's not uncommon for hymn, folk, and march elements to appear side-by-side as they do here.

The release is an indispensable addition to Pine's forty-album discography, which with this latest release totals twenty-two on Cedille (she's, in fact, the label's best-selling artist). In a personal note included in the release booklet (which also features an illuminating commentary by Mark Clague that provides fascinating analyses of the works and details about the composers), the Chicago-based violinist addresses the issue of whether it's appropriate for a white artist to perform the music of Black composers. After cheekily noting that no one puts the same question to her when she plays Tchaikovsky or Sibelius (as she's neither Russian nor Finnish), she states, “As classical performers, it's our joy and responsibility to study and share as much great music as we can, so we can better understand each other's humanity.” Everyone, regardless of colour, benefits when the music of the composers featured on this release is shared.

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