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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Violin Concerto (1931)
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)

Violin Concerto (1936)
Michael Erxleben (violin)
Berlin Symphony Orchestra
Michael Schønwandt (Stravinsky), Claus Peter Flor (Schoenberg)
Rec. (Stravinsky) April 1994, (Schoenberg) June 1989 (Schoenberg), Christuskirche, Berlin. DDD
BERLIN CLASSICS 01 8362 2BC [59.31]


This pairing of violin concertos of the 1930s by two great 20th century masters makes a particularly interesting coupling. And from the point of view of musical style, it is unlikely that two compositions could show their different personalities more strongly.

The Violin Concerto is one of Stravinsky's finest achievements in concert music, its brilliant scoring featuring triple woodwinds while never obscuring the clarity of the solo line. He claimed his 'chief interest was concentrated on the different combinations of violin and orchestra', but as so often, despite seemingly wide-ranging features, a Russian influence is frequently felt. The outer movements have baroque titles, Toccata and Capriccio, while instead of a conventional slow movement there are two 'arias', the second of them surely a tribute to Bach.

Michael Erxleben is a strong soloist, leading the performance with a clearly articulated personality and confident tone. Rhythmically he and the Berlin Orchestra are very much at one, so his collaboration with his conductor, Michael Schønwandt, is a success. The approaches between the different movements create a pleasing balance and the virtuoso element scores highly. If there is a criticism it is that the slower sections of the concerto might have attained greater inwardness and mystery. Whether this feeling results from the performance or from the recording is difficult to tell. Certainly the rhythmic vigour of the music is a compelling part of the experience, and it is a feature of this recording.

Whereas Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto is dominated by its rhythmic bite and cleanly articulated lines, Schoenberg’s is full of late-romantic ardour. It is a twelve-tone compositions, the construction relating to the positioning of the notes of the chromatic scale placed in carefully organised sequences. The three movements undoubtedly relate to the great concerto tradition, and the cadenza comes in the ‘normal’ place before the first movement coda. The second movement has some beautifully refined textures but some extremely complex harmonies, while at tempo Allegro the finale has rather more vigour. Among contemporary violinists opinions were divided by Schoenberg’s concerto. Jascha Heifetz, for example, declared it to be unplayable, whereas Louis Krasner, who was also closely associated with Alban Berg’s concerto, gave the first performance and championed the work at every opportunity.

Theories are as may be, but the fact of the matter remains that Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto must stand or fall on its merits as music. The composer himself recognised this and said so openly. He would surely have admired the concentrated playing of Michael Erxleben and the Berlin Symphony Orchestra under their then (1989) principal conductor, Claus Peter Flor. Together they opt to bring out the romantic ardour and intensity, every expressive phrase shaped carefully and lovingly so as to make the maximum effect. Perhaps this occasionally misses some dramatic opportunities, in the finale especially, but they seem successful in maintaining the musical line over its three extensive spans; each movement extends over more than ten minutes, and the whole concerto plays for some thirty-five minutes.

The recorded sound is less pleasing in the Schoenberg concerto than in the Stravinsky. Perhaps this is because it is harder to create the right balances in this expressionist score, but the results place the violinist very much in front of a recessed orchestra. This seems unnatural, and while Erxleben’s tone and technique can take the scrutiny, this frequent problem among concerto recordings is found once again.

Terry Barfoot


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