Beware of the vicissitudes of historical research, especially when it involves issues of race. Violinist Rachel Barton Pine can tell you all about that from firsthand experience.
In 1997, Pine recorded what was in its time a groundbreaking album, Violin Concertos by Black Composers of the 18th and 19th Centuries, for the Cedille label. She could thank the late Michael Morgan, then the principal conductor of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, for introducing her to the Violin Concerto No. 4 by Chevalier J.J.O. de Meude-Monpas, an 18th-century French composer who was thought to be Black. That discovery led her to little-known pieces for violin and orchestra by Joseph Bologne, José White Lafitte (who had been previously recorded by Aaron Rosand for Columbia’s Black Composers Series in 1974), and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.
All of the pieces were included on the album, her first concerto outing, and its success inspired her to use her foundation to create a Music by Black Composers initiative that to date has collected over 900 works by more than 450 composers spanning four centuries. However, subsequent research by scholars has established a consensus around a rather inconvenient fact: that Meude-Monpas probably was not Black after all. Though the appendage to his title was “le noir,” researchers now believe that name applied to his horse. Oh, well. Back to the drawing board, guys.
So for the 25th-anniversary update of the album, Pine deleted the Meude-Monpas piece and inserted one by an indisputably Black composer, Florence Price’s Violin Concerto No. 2, the score of which was still lost when the original album was released. (It turned up in 2009 among the now-famous stash of Price manuscripts in her abandoned summer house near St. Anne, Ill.) The revised album has been retitled Violin Concertos by Black Composers Through The Centuries (Cedille).
The single-movement Price concerto dates from 1952, a year before her death, and it starts rather dramatically with colorful solo touches from the celesta before settling into an elegantly curling tune for the violin that Fritz Kreisler would have loved. The violin dances through subsequent changes in mood and tempo, with the occasional whiff of a whole-tone scale as a signpost that this is a late Price work. The dramatic introduction comes back twice, there are plenty of fast figurations for the soloist in the work’s center, and things seem to come peacefully to a conclusion. But it’s a false ending, for everyone comes crashing in again for a few seconds to give the concerto the requisite bravura finish. Price knew what standing ovations are made from.
On to the previously released selections. Bologne’s Violin Concerto in A Major Op. 5, No. 2 is another pleasing work of his in the classical manner of his time with several outbreaks of rapid passagework in the opening movement and plenty of worthy tunes. The violin gently explores the landscape over orchestral triplets in the slow movement; the cadenza makes use of drones and double stops. The Rondeau is also full of good tunes, ending abruptly after a restatement of the theme. Bologne was an ingratiating composer, always worth hearing.
White’s 1864 Violin Concerto is in a post-Paganini Romantic manner for virtuosos fearless enough to give it a ride. Rosand has written that he was given the assignment to record it because more famous players on the Columbia roster didn’t want to learn it due to its technical traps, but nothing fazed the then-22-year-old Pine, already a mature player. She dances lightly through the rapid passages and double stops, making dazzling work of the fearsome finale, if not as emphatic in rhythm as Rosand. Coleridge-Taylor’s piece is a Romance in G Major for Violin and Orchestra, a pleasant if unexceptional stretch of Romanticism where the instrument sings out, often in double stops, with some mild angst from the orchestra in the center.
Daniel Hege led the Encore Chamber Orchestra in the 1997 recordings, while Pine journeyed to Glasgow to play Price with Jonathon Heyward and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. It would be difficult to guess from the consistent sound that the sessions were nearly 25 years and a continent apart.
As for the canceled Meude-Monpas concerto — a sturdy piece in much the same classical style as Bologne’s — shouldn’t it be revived again in a place where the composer’s race is not a factor? I think it should.