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Violin Concerto

Nights in the Gardens of Spain
Maxim Vengerov (vln), Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim
Arthaus Musik (Region 0), Cat. No 100 034 (87 minutes)
 about £19


This DVD contains one of the greatest performances of Sibelius' Violin Concerto you will ever hear. It is a performance that chilled me to the bone.

Maxim Vengerov, in as imperious form as I have ever heard him, gives us a bloodcurdling display of how to make the violin, the most sheerly beautiful of all string instruments, sound as cold and desolate as the Arctic. The very opening has an iciness that stills the heart, the slow movement a barrenness all of its own, the finale a lumbering gait that bears less resemblance to one dancing polar bear, rather than a whole troupe of them.

What amazes is the depth of tone. It is just thunderous. This is a performance that sets the contrasts of this work clearly apart - above the stave Vengerov's purity of expression is like a glacier, below the stave like the deepest footprints in freshly fallen snow. But it is also one of the most passionate accounts of this deeply affecting work I have heard. It has a mixture of poetry and anger that are almost symptomatic of the doctrine of nature itself. Although Vengerov plays mainly with his eyes shut, there is no doubt that his performance is anything but isolationist. After hearing this performance you feel as if you have been on a journey through the bleakest of landscapes. Barenboim's accompaniment is superbly well articulated with dynamics beautifully phrased. It is the most opalescent version now available, in any format.

His two encores (the audience rightly go wild) are the sarabande from Bach's D minor Partita (a dry, almost detached performance), and the ballade from Ysaye's D minor Sonata (a sensational display of virtuosity).

Barenboim is pianist in Falla's Nights in the Gardens of Spain. Conducted by Placido Domingo, I had initially thought the performance might be slack and uneventful. It is anything but that - but it is Barenboim who impresses. His pianism is quite thrilling, the excitement of the piece more than sustained by Domingo's breathless tempi.

Barenboim returns to the podium as conductor in the Fire Dance. Whether planned or otherwise, this small piece offers the first comparison of a work on Arthaus DVDs - Abbado also plays it in his New Year's Eve Gala (also reviewed). Both the Berlin Phil and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra are stunning in their own ways - but it is Abbado's performance that fires the imagination. His gestures are minimal compared with Barenboim, but what beauty of sound Abbado gets from his players (superlative flutes again). Where Abbado's performance blazes like a raging inferno, Barenboim's is a fire that has almost burnt to the embers.

The sound quality is again fabulous.

Marc Bridle


Marc Bridle

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