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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976) Violin Concerto, Op.15 (revised version) (1939 rev. 1961)
William WALTON (1902-1983) Viola Concerto (1927, 1961 version)
Maxim Vengerov (violin)
London Symphony Orchestra/Mstislav Rostropovich
Britten recorded March 2002, Walton recorded December 2002, Abbey Road, London.
Full price
EMI CLASSICS 7243 5 57510 2 7 [64’29]


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Until very recently, Britten’s violin concerto had proved elusive in the ideal studio performance. Lydia Mordkovich on Chandos was the first to give it a glowing performance and now Maxim Vengerov, the finest violinist of the last decade, has turned to the work that he played in London last year under these same partners, Rostropovich and the London Symphony Orchestra.

The result is a superlative performance of a concerto that hasn’t really been taken up by top-flight violinists (Heifetz, Menuhin and Perlman, for example, no strangers to ‘English’ concertos, studiously avoided it). It is certainly a work of contrasts: technically, it is ruthlessly difficult, idiomatically it is much less ‘English’ than virtually any violin concerto by a British composer that precedes it. Moments of lyricism are accompanied by moments of barrenness, but what perhaps makes it so difficult to bring off is its stark intellectualism and the conflict between major and minor which gives the work an unsettled persona of equivocation.

As Vengerov said before his concert performances last year: "It is a very special work. Britten uses colouring that hadn't really been used before, both harmonically and by his intriguing combinations of the instruments. I think that the real challenge is not in the technique but in the interpretation; Britten's musical ideas can be very intense and so to communicate them clearly to the audience you have to work very hard as a performer. But because of this it is very rewarding to play, and I think to listen to."

In part, Britten’s concerto may have suffered because in design it is similar to Prokofiev’s First Concerto, composed almost 20 years earlier. An undeniably greater work, Prokofiev’s highlights what the Britten concerto lacks: a searing melodic line allied with a complex of austerity and emotion. Britten may also have been tempting fate by making the opening drum rhythm so close to that employed in Beethoven’s concerto, even if in Britten’s case the drums are more stifled to prevent the comparison being an obvious one. It is often the case that indifferent performances of this work are responding to Britten’s own lack of inventiveness.

What Vengerov brings to this performance, however, is not just a brilliant technique (as an example of virtuoso playing it could not be bettered), but a deeper understanding of the work’s colours, something not naturally evoked in other recorded interpretations of the work. The Spanish rhythms of the first movement are inflected with glittering flamenco touches ideally suited to Vengerov’s magical lightness of tone, and the Passacaglia bears all the hallmarks of Vengerov’s way with Bach – taut and incisive. More than that, he invests the concerto with an individuality of descriptiveness and gives a haunting ambivalence to much of the work’s darker undertones. Rarely, if ever, has this work sounded so threatening and disturbing as it does on this recording.

Rostropovich brings an innateness of idiom to his conducting, and perhaps more than any other conductor makes the work as sombre and dark as it was intended to be (much in keeping with Rostropovich’s approach to Shostakovich in fact). And unusually for this conductor, his rapport with his soloist is absolute.

Walton’s Viola Concerto has been recorded by violinists before – Menuhin and Kennedy both recorded it, although neither performance is satisfactory when compared with performances by Bashmet and Primrose. Deemed impossible to play when it was first written, ten years before the Britten concerto, Vengerov (playing the 1961 version) negotiates its technical hurdles with ease (superb double-stopping is especially noticeable in the first and last movements). However the work’s ripe romanticism doesn’t always suit Vengerov who tends nowadays to shun wide vibrato. He is certainly able to produce opulent tone when needed, especially in the opening movement taken at a very broad tempo, but that is achieved more by the perfection of his intonation than by any need to broaden the sound of the viola.

His performance of the scherzo is mercurial – almost anarchic in its virtuosity – but what is striking are the jazz syncopations that come so naturally to Vengerov. In no other performance of this work is the brilliance of Walton’s writing delivered with such panache and such feeling for rhythm as it is here, and in no other performance are the scherzando passages delivered with such velocity and accuracy of touch. It is spellbinding.

Some of Vengerov’s (and the London Symphony Orchestra’s) best playing is reserved for the massive final movement where Vengerov’s eloquence on the instrument is demonstrated to its full potential. Listen to him at 12 minutes into the final movement and the most glorious pianissimo playing evokes a mistral of haunted beauty that is breathtaking. The close of the work, hushed and intense in equilibrium, is delivered with sanctifying introspection. Rostropovich and the LSO match their outstanding soloist in every bar.

EMI’s slightly recessed recording – beautifully balanced though it is – needs to be played back at a high volume but the sound is extremely well focussed. It complements an outstanding disc that gives us the best recording yet of Britten’s concerto and a performance of the Walton that is only bettered by William Primrose’s second recording.

Marc Bridle

See also review by Ian Lace

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