higdon concertos naxos

Jennifer Higdon (b. 1962)
Duo Duel (2020)
Concerto for Orchestra (2002)
Matthew Strauss, Svet Stoyanov (percussion)
Houston Symphony/Robert Spano
rec. 2015/22, Jesse H. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts, Houston, USA
Naxos 8.559913 [60]

Jennifer Higdon is well regarded, frequently commissioned and often recorded in her native USA, but much less well known this side of the pond. I had heard of her but not actually heard any of her music, so I was pleased when the opportunity to review this CD came up. It contains a recent work, Duo Duel of 2020, and one of her best known, the Concerto for Orchestra of 2002. Higdon’s standing is shown by the fact that this comes in the American Classics series from Naxos.

Duo Duel is a double concerto for two percussionists. They share a vibraphone and a marimba and also have recourse to crotales. They also each have a set of three timpani. A picture in the booklet shows the layout of their instruments. The work plays in one continuous movement but is divided into four sections, alternately slow and fast. It opens barely audibly with quiet jingling before a gentle theme on the strings moves in. This is a romantic one, and in general Higdon’s idiom is romantic, though of course the extensive use of percussion is a modern trait. She likes lyrical writing for the strings, chordal entries on the brass, often muted, and occasional solos by woodwind. Over all these, the two soloists play, with the marimba and vibraphone being the most prominent instruments for most of the work, with several marimba cadenzas. However, in the last section, the timpani are brought to the fore, the writing for the two players inevitably reflecting that in Stravinsky’s Danse sacrale from The Rite of Spring. However, this is altogether a more lighthearded, indeed lightweight though attractive work. This is its first recording.

The Concerto for Orchestra is an altogether more substantial proposition. It is in five movements, like the most famous example of the genre, that by Bartók. Higdon composed it from the middle out, with the third movement the first to be written and the first movement being the last. It opens with chimes, which I think are what we know as tubular bells, followed by scurrying strings and then brass chording. This reminded me of the opening of Tippett’s third symphony, and indeed Higdon’s idiom here is rather like that of Tippett. The second movement starts with pizzicato strings  though they are then allowed to take up their bows in leaping and joyous figures. The third movement is much the longest, with a great variety of material including solos by most of the principals.  The fourth movement is dominated by percussion and celesta and gradually gets faster and faster. The finale begins with violins and has an ostinato in the percussion, again with constantly increasing tempo. Higdon might have been thinking here of Elliott Carter’s Variations for Orchestra which similarly uses gradually increasing (also also reducing) tempi.

The work is an attractive one. Whether it will turn out to have the staying power of earlier examples of the genre, including the Bartók, the Lutosławski, the Tippett and the Magnus Lindberg, only time will tell. The playing of the Houston Symphony under Robert Spano is confident and secure and the recording is impeccable. It is a little strange that this recording of the Concerto has taken eight years to issue. There is another recording of the Concerto, also by Robert Spano but made in 2004 with the Atlanta Symphony on Telarc (review), but this Naxos is an economical way to explore this prominent composer’s work.

Stephen Barber

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