Discovering Pierre Rode…Sort Of

570034bk Hasse

RODE: 24 Caprices for Solo Violin / Axel Strauss, vln / Naxos 8.570958

RODE: Violin Concertos Nos. 1, 5 & 91 / Naxos 8. 572755 / Violin Concertos Nos. 2 & 8.1 Variations on Paisiello’s “Nel cor più non mi sento.” Introduction & Variations on a Tyrolean Air / Naxos 8.573054 / Violin Concertos Nos. 3, 4 & 61 / Naxos 8.570767 / Violin Concertos Nos. 7, 10 & 132 / Naxos 8.570469 / Violin Concertos Nos. 11 & 12.1 Air varié in E. Air varié in D / Naxos 8.573474 / Friedemann Eichhorn, vln; 1Jena Philharmonic Orch., 2SW German Radio Orch. Kaiserlautern; Nicolás Pasquet, cond

RODE: 12 Études. 6 Duos* / Nicolas Koeckert *& Rudolf Koeckert, vln / Naxos 8.572604

This is the strange and somewhat contradictory story of a once-famous violinist and composer of works for the violin who fell out of favor long before his death, yet premiered Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 10 and left behind some of the most interesting violin concerti of the Romantic era I’ve ever heard. And the only reason I found out about it was because violinist Friedemann Eichhorn put up a Facebook post promoting the set a few days ago.

To add to the contradictions in this story is the fact that, according to his violin teacher, the reviews of critics and the first-hand account of Ludwig Spohr, Rode’s own playing sounded nothing like what we hear on these recordings…yet what we hear is probably ten times better than the way Rode actually played. This, in turn, gives lie—and a pretty big lie—to the entire “historically-informed performance” crowd, who I’ve been telling my readers for years are full of it because they know NOTHING about how violinists of the 18th and 19th centuries actually played. As the old vaudeville comedian Jack Pearl, who played “Baron Munchhausen” on the radio for years, used to say when someone questioned him about some fantastic yarn he had just told, “Vas you dere, Sharlie?”

Here are the actual facts about Rode’s playing style as reported on Wikipedia…some taken from other first-hand reports by one Pierre-Jean Garat and at least one from a monograph by Bruce R. Schueneman (who also wrote the liner notes for the concerto CDs), The Search for a Minor Composer (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_Rode). Capitalizations and bold print were added by me to emphasize salient points:

Rode…soon became a favourite pupil of the great Giovanni Battista Viotti, who found the boy so talented that he charged him no fee for the lessons. Rode inherited his teacher’s style, to which he added more mildness and a more refined tone. It is also recorded that he made extensive use of PORTAMENTO.

Now, how long have I been ranting, apparently spitting into the wind, about how 18th and 19th century string players used a TON of portamento, but that the HIP folks, choosing what they want and don’t want to use, have chucked it out because it doesn’t fit their narrative? And how long have I been ranting that they did NOT use constant straight tone, but only in fast passages? It seems like forever. But wait…there’s more!

Rode served as violin soloist to Napoleon and toured extensively in the Netherlands, Germany, England and Spain, staying with François-Adrien Boieldieu in Saint Petersburg from 1804 until 1809, and later spending much time in Moscow.

When he returned to Paris, he found that the public no longer responded with much enthusiasm to his playing. Spohr, who heard him both before and after his Russian sojourn, wrote that Rode’s playing had become “COLD AND FULL OF MANNERISMS.”

Yet if you put on any CD in this series, not just the five made by the mind-boggling German violinist Friedrich Eichhorn but the other two recordings made by Axel Strauss and Nicolas Koeckert, you’ll hear playing that sounds much closer to what we think of Paganini, particularly the Eichhorn performances which sound like Heifetz on steroids (to the conducting of Nicolás Pasquet which is equally fiery). Moreover, the music is endlessly fascinating, not only full of brio and color but also some interesting harmonic shifts and Beethoven-like juxtaposition of themes. So will the real Pierre Rode place stand up?!?

If you doubt what I’ve just said above about violin style in general, please take into consideration the actual recorded evidence of French or Belgian violin playing during the 20th century. Think of Eugène Ysaÿe (his actual playing on records, not his solo violin sonatas), Jacques Thibaud, Henry Merckel, Daniel Guilet etc…the only really fiery French violinist of the 20th century was Ginette Neveu. Everyone else played with a lean tone, refined phrasing and, in the cases of the earlier Ysaÿe and Thibaud, with a fair amount of portamento. The French violin school, it seems, has always been on the “refined” side. Without Pablo Casals’ cello and Alfred Cortot’s miraculously rich, colorful piano, those old trio recordings with Thibaud would clearly not have sounded as good as they did. (I might also add a non-soloist who most people have never heard of, Lucien Capet, the founding member and leader of the once-renowned Capet String Quartet. He was an anomaly in his time for playing more frequently with straight tone than his contemporaries, and like Neveu he played with a fair amount of energy, but it was still a lean tone and not given to sounding like Jascha Heifetz.)

But to return to an actual review of the music herein and its impact via the specific interpreters used for the recordings, the cumulative effect is almost overwhelming. According to that same Wikipedia article on Rode, his 24 Caprices are his only compositions which are standard fare for middle-to-advanced violin students. I found them just a shade less interesting than Paganini’s but still quite interesting overall, with No. 13 being clearly the most Romantic-sounding of all and the one that you can really imagine being played in a mild, refined style—and, yes, with portamento—although Alex Strauss merely plays it with a lovely legato, no portamento, and muscling up the fast middle section. And oh, yes, he uses vibrato on sustained notes…and it sounds really good! Like Eichhorn, who we shall get to in a minute, Strauss makes these Caprices sound colorful and dramatic, which clearly places them on a par with the more famous Paganini works. Caprice No. 20 is really a strange piece, changing both key and tempo several times. I can’t even imagine this one being played in the “mild, more refined” style, with excess portamento, that Rode apparently used so frequently. Thus we clearly have a dichotomy between what is in the printed score and what was reported—frequently, and by several auditors—about Rode’s own playing style. Interestingly, although Eichhorn is not the violinist on this CD, it is his edition of the Caprices that was recently published by G. Henle Vertag, edited for the fingering by Norbert Gertsh.

Before getting into the Concerti, I listened to the Variations and “Airs” played by Eichhorn. The variations on an aria by Paisiello was, for me, completely uninteresting music, tuneful and drippy with little or no real invention or individuality other than a few of Rode’s variants, which here were nothing to write home about. The Variations on a Tyrolean Air starts out rather drippy, and there are some sweetsy-cutesy moments in it, but several of Rode’s variants have a bit more backbone, particularly the way Eichhorn plays them, and one or two are highly virtuosic. The Air varié in E is rather conventional in structure although the solo violin writing is virtuosic, much like Wieniawski’s bullshit compositions, but the one in D major is rather more dramatic and interesting.

I then decided to listen to all of the concerti in numerical order which, as you can see from the header to this review, is not the way they were issued on CD. Boris Schwarz makes a big fuss over the first, claiming it is more original and startling than the other 12. It is clearly a fine work, like many of the later concerti bold and dramatic with unusual twists in the themes and his use of both harmony and rhythm. Thank God that neither Eichhorn nor the Jena Philharmonic dilute its punch by playing it with that anemic-sounding straight tone; it would have robbed the music of much of its impact. With that being said, I honestly didn’t think that the violin line in the first movement was all that varied or interesting compared to some of the later concerti, virtuosic though it is. (I’m talking now about musical interest, not mere flash.) The slow movement is quite lovely without being treacly; it almost sounds like something Beethoven might have written circa 1804 except for the fact that it was written in 1794, when Beethoven’s music was still under the spell of Haydn and Mozart. The last movement, set in the minor, has an unusual rhythmic feel that resembles Russian music…except that this was written about a decade before Rode went to Russia.

The second concerto, in E major, may indeed sound like a bit of a let-down after the powerful Russian-sounding finale of the first, but once the first movement gets rolling it has its own energy and Rode’s use of harmony is clearly in advance of the Mozartian model, with its sudden juxtaposition of powerful chords alternating between major and minor in the style of Mendelssohn—who wasn’t even born yet. Interestingly, it was dedicated to Rudolph Kreutzer, the guy who never actually played the Beethoven sonata named after him. Yes, there’s a bit more flash and somewhat less substance in the violin part of the first movement than in the Concerto No. 1, but this is still far in advance of anything else being written for the violin in 1798.

And that brings us to another thing. We all know what Beethoven sounded like in the late 1780s through about 1797, a cross between Haydn and Mozart with a little sprinkling of C.P.E. Bach on top for flavoring. Rode’s music really didn’t sound like anyone else’s of his time. Oh, you can say that this phrase or that one puts you in mind of someone else, but it’s generally a later composer, not a contemporary. I only wish that Beethoven’s one and only violin concerto was half as original and inventive as most of Rode’s. The third concerto, in G minor, is so good that you would (again) think that perhaps Mendelssohn had written it, at least the way it’s conducted and played here, with tons of energy and brio. The rhythmic pulse in the first movement is so strong, in fact, that it practically leaps out at you and pins you to the wall, and here the writing for the violin soloist is not merely flashy but dramatically impressive. In the last movement, it is both, with some mind-boggling double-time figures which Eichhorn knocks off as if he played them in his sleep.

The fourth concerto opens in a more relaxed, pastoral vein—Rode’s “Beethoven Sixth Symphony” following the sturm und drang of the Fifth—but it is no less creative in its own way, and still more exciting than the Beethoven violin concerto. The last movement in particular is a little gem all by itself, telling its own story in its own way, incorporating virtuosic flash and wrapping it in substance. The fifth opens, deceptively, with a nice pastoral theme, but within a few bars it’s off and running even before the solo violin enters—and again, with sudden, unexpected dips into the minor, creating its own drama.

If the Sixth Concerto doesn’t sound like Beethoven to you, nothing will. The orchestra jumps out with tremendous verve, the harmonies constantly leaning in and out of neighboring keys; the breathless string tremolos and excitable trumpets drive the catchy yet somewhat elusive theme almost like the first movement of the “Eroica” symphony—until the violinist’s entrance, virtuosic yet substantive as usual for Rode—except that it was written in 1799-1800, three to four years before the “Eroica.” Methinks that Herr Beethoven picked up a few ideas from Rode’s violin concerti. In a way, I understand why Rode’s concerti aren’t played in public; only the best of the best violinists have this kind of technique and, more importantly, the kind of fire and drive that Eichhorn possesses. If a British violinist, in particular, were the attempt this music, it surely would not sound like this unless the orchestra was conducted by someone like Robin Ticciati. The Brits do love their goopy, la-de-da Romanticisms. And, with the possible exception of James Ehnes, where is the British violinist who can or, more to the point, would play with this kind of fire? Eichhorn wrote all the cadenzas to all of the first movements in these concerti; they are good and apt cadenzas, but the irony is that at the time these works were written, not to mention a century before and nearly a century after, ALL soloists in concerti were expected to play their own cadenzas. Yet another art of the virtuoso soloist that has atrophied in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Perhaps the one feature I find most interesting about these various concerti is that all of the final movements are wonderfully lively, yet each one of them is in a different rhythm. The one for the sixth concerto is an energetic 4/4 that sounds a little like a folk song of indeterminate nationality; it’s not quite Italian, yet if I had to choose I’d probably say Italian because it doesn’t sound German, French, Russian or British. Maybe a bit Alpine or Tyrolean, but that’s about it. And once again, Rode moves occasionally from the major to the minor and back again. The seventh concerto, in A minor, again indulges in a bit of sturm und drang in both its initial theme and the orchestration. Yet once the solo violin enters, we switch to the major and stay there for quite a bit of time until the orchestra returns, now vacillating between major and minor. The second movement, primarily in the major, suddenly and unexpectedly moves to the minor in a later passage, and here the violin unexpectedly dips into its lower register rather than the usual high-flying writing that Rode did for his instrument most of the time. The final “Rondo” is yet another jaunty tune, this time with the feeling of a syncopated jig.

Concerto No. 8 is also in the minor (E minor), but here the music sounds, again, more like Mendelssohn, who still hadn’t been born. The violin part in the first movement, though clearly virtuosic in character, isn’t quite as busy as some of the other concerti, which would probably help it gain some popularity among those listeners with “slow ears.” The third movement is played without a real break, something different for Rode, and goes back to the minor with some interesting fast scale passages for the orchestra amidst the virtuosic fiddling. A sudden orchestral “gust” at the 3:25 mark almost sounds like a winter wind blowing in across the concerto.

The ninth concerto is in C major, and the opening orchestral passage sounds a bit like very advanced Mozart.  Despite the consistency of his virtuosic solo passages, Rode obviously had more than one “voice” as a composer. The last movement is particularly light and airy, with a bit more “space” in the violin part than usual for Rode.

I think that one of the things that most impressed me about Rode, considering the time in which he wrote these concerti, was his grasp of orchestration. Yes, some of it is more ornate than Beethoven, such as the string figures in the first movement of the Concerto No. 10, and that kind of harks back to an earlier style, but his orchestral writing is surprisingly rich and quite exceptional for someone who was primarily focused on his own instrument. The Chopin Piano Concerti have, in my opinion, absolutely terrible orchestral scores, bare and functional but not much else, and the scores that Liszt wrote for his concerti are only a little better, but Rode’s scores could almost stand on their own as symphonic works, and that’s extremely unusual. Although once his own very ornate solo work comes in the orchestra recedes to being a backdrop, they continue to develop their own themes when they return, thus making each concerto a little gem. In this concerto, too, the third movement is somewhat linked to the end of the second, as in Beethoven’s and Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerti which, again, were written at a future date.

The 11th Concerto opens with an entirely different feel from the others, almost Italianate, and within a few bars switches from D major to D minor, then (typically of Rode) keeps switching back and forth between the major and minor, sometimes so quickly and in such remote keys in the blink of an eye that the ear almost can’t catch them quickly enough. But as usual, the solo violin part is virtuosic and flashy but still meaty. Yes, there are several times when I wish that Rode had cut back a little on the fireworks in order to make the violin part as serious as the orchestral setting, but he seemed to be (at least, at that time) someone who loved to operate at double tempo. Eichhorn’s first movement cadenza for this concerto is particularly dazzling but also musically interesting. The Rondo finale is set to a bouncy rhythm in 4 which seems to vacillate between an Italian and a Russian feeling. Except for the “Rondo mèle d’airs russe” that wraps up the 12th concerto, it is less interesting than many of its predecessors.

The Concerto No. 13 also sounds rather conventional, but these last two were written later in life for Rode when his own playing had become milder and “full of mannerisms.” I think he just ran out of inspiration. By now, the mercurial key changes sounded more pre-planned and les spontaneous, and his themes, though still dipping in and out of the major and minor, were less interesting. But the solo part in the first movement of this last concerto holds back a bit on the flash, not entirely but enough to be noticeable, and even the solo writing is less interesting. What was once a “gusher” of innovative and interesting musical ideas is now a “pumper”; he was forcing the issue, trying to recapture the thrills of his earlier works and, in my view, not really succeeding. But I can tell you which concerti will be played on your local classical FM station…the last two. And listeners won’t have the faintest idea of how great his music was earlier on.

We have no real idea when Rode wrote the 12 Études. His widow showed them to some violinist and music editor named Launer after his death, and they were published along with the 13th Concerto and three sets of variations. I found most of them flashy but somewhat lacking in substance, though they are clearly excellent exercises for violin students, thus they filled the bill in that respect as Czerny did for pianists. Still, they’re somewhat uneven in terms of musical substance although Nicholas Koeckert plays them with as much virtuosity and fire as Strauss played the Caprices and Eichhorn the concerti. Among the better ones are Étude No. 4, which is very interesting, again, for his penchant of moving around the tonality; No. 5 has some very interesting rhythmic twists in it; No. 9 is quite playful., and No. 11 has some dramatic pauses in it that catch the listener’s attention. The Duos are also playful and entertaining, but not even as substantive as the Études.

But make no mistake: in terms of Rode’s musical conceptions in the Caprices and especially in the first 11 concerti, musical history needs to be rewritten. He had great musical imagination and used it well, despite the fact that the flashy solo parts of his first movements tend to run together in one’s mind.

I should point out that listening to all these concerti, one after another, can create a sort of musical whiplash in the listener, so unrelentingly virtuosic is the violin line, but of course Rode never expected anyone, himself included, would be foolhardy enough to listen to them all in order..but thus is the life of the music critic. Granted, a couple of these concerti sound not necessarily just like others in the series but clearly close enough that they may indeed be expendable, but listening to just one or two at a time is wonderfully exhilarating—and your attention never flags because Rode always seems to come up with something interesting to capture your attention. My personal feeling is that about half the concerti are fascinating and indispensable works that point forward to musical works and trends to come, the flashy solo parts aside, and the Caprices and Etudes are also very fine works, but like me, you might want to hear the whole shebang and decide for yourself.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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3 thoughts on “Discovering Pierre Rode…Sort Of

  1. I can’t get all of them, but what I’ve heard is remarkable. I’ve been playing the 1st quite a bit. There is a theme that emerges around the 12” mark of the first movement. I’ve heard that before ….

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  2. Very interesting article. Having played through the 24 Caprices I can attest to their great musical variety, tunefulness and inventiveness. Some are almost neo-Baroque, some fiery Sturm und Drang. They are great fun to play and, since they cover all 24 keys, very good for improving intonation on the violin. (James Ehnes is Canadian, not British, of course; but that doesn’t detract from the value of your article!)

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