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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882 - 1971)
Violin Concerto in D (1931) [20'32 ]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891 - 1953)
Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor (1935) [25:34 ]
Itzhak Perlman (violin)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim

Rec. live, Orchestra Hall, Chicago, May 1993 (Prokofiev); Sept 1994 (Stravinsky)
WARNER ELATUS 2564 61572-2 [46'20]


Talk about chalk and cheese! Both composers are Russian, but Stravinsky left Russia for purely artistic (or maybe business) reasons and never even contemplated going back, whereas Prokofiev left out of fear but eventually returned because homesickness overcame his fears. Both could be said to have astringent idioms, but Stravinsky traversed a goodly portion of the length and breadth of musical history seeking grist for his mill, whereas Prokofiev, one little excursion apart, ploughed his own furrow through the Twentieth Century. Both worked with Diaghilev, but with markedly different results. Both composed a lot of ballet, but ...

The list goes on, right down to the chalk ‘n’ cheesiness of these two violin concertos. Both were written to commissions, but whereas Prokofiev’s is a mainstream “virtuoso” work written during the comings and goings of his protracted return to Russia, Stravinsky’s is more a  “concertante” piece written in the comfort of his established cosmopolitan lifestyle - and paradoxically a much tougher nut for performers to crack. I feel another list bubbling up, so maybe I’d better move on!

I’ve had the CBS LP of Isaac Stern playing the Stravinsky concerto, conducted by the composer, on my shelf since around 1963. I still consider it a benchmark. This concerto is one of those rare works where the old CBS “spotlighting” habit is actually a benefit, though the reason for this is surprisingly complicated.

Stravinsky was initially diffident about accepting the commission: according to the booklet note in the Elatus recording, he was both unsure of his ground technically and he “did not trust virtuosos”. It took the encouraging words of Hindemith, a reassuring meeting with Samuel Dushkin, the virtuoso for whom the work was commissioned, and a lot of study of the great concertos to convince him that he could give it a shot.

At the time, Stravinsky was in the “neo-baroque” leg of his travels - this was a stroke of luck because it immediately pointed him at the Concerto Grosso model. He could thus write for the violin more as the “leader” of a concertino group, letting himself off the hook insofar as modern virtuoso pyrotechnics were concerned. Scoring his work for a fairly large orchestra, the small body of strings defined the overall scale of the sound, and within that defining frame the multitudes of wind instruments were used, together with “the” soloist, as a kaleidoscope of chamber-scale concertino combinations.

The problem with this, for recording engineers who try to set the music in a “natural” environment as much as for “live” performances, is that the space needed to contain the orchestra tends to be larger than the optimal “performing space” required by any given combination of players. Hence the need, in a recording at least, for some creative microphony. QED!

This is apparent soon after the start. In Stern’s CBS recording, the growling bassoon trills are right under your nose. Turn to Kyung Wha Chung with the LSO and Previn on Decca, a recording set in a reverberant large-hall acoustic (Kingsway Hall, London), and those bassoon trills - reduced to a vague and muffled groan - may as well not be there. On the more closely recorded Elatus disc, you do at least hear something, though it still doesn’t sound like bassoon trills!.

The same holds for the balance of the violin soloist. Stravinsky’s stream of concertinos requires the violin soloist to be in, rather than in front of, the orchestra. Stern is, as near as dammit, part of the ensemble, alternately emerging from and blending with the textures - which is surely just what Stravinsky intended, and as conductor you can bet your bottom dollar that, regarding the recorded balance, his word was law! Chung stands well to the fore, always “the” soloist even when her part is clearly one of accompaniment. More damagingly, in some places, effects that have ear-catching charm in Stern’s recording simply do not happen with Chung and Previn. For example, there is a particular point just before the finale’s coda, where violin and flute intertwine - or, rather, they should do. Perlman comes between these two extremes but, as he rarely becomes fully absorbed into the texture, stands nearer to Chung than to Stern.

There is another pitfall. In his “neo-baroque” works, and his “neo-classical” and “neo-serial” stuff for that matter, Stravinsky aims for a clarity that’s as sharp as a stropped razor - he often demands needles, never mind hairpins, and this affects the quality of the instrumental sound: not exactly desiccated, but definitely well on the dry side of damp. Previn’s LSO, beautifully as they play, sound as if all the sharp edges have been chamfered, sanded and polished, certainly when set alongside Stravinsky’s or Barenboim’s alert ensembles. Even so, Barenboim still manages to miss several textural tricks, notably in the Toccata where the twice-occurring downwards-bouncing phrase lacks the requisite trombone “rasp”, which is one sound that hardly depends on help from any sound engineers. Stravinsky’s trombonist fair lifts my hackles here!

That brings us to the vexed question of interpretation, “vexed” because of Stravinsky’s dictum that “There should be no ‘interpreters’ of my music, only ‘executants’”. He claimed that, as he had notated the music exactly, all that was required of the “executants” was to follow his instructions to the letter. With all due respect, this was one occasion when he was talking out of the back of his head - and to see why you need look no further than the first page of the score of Le Sacre du Printemps. Stravinsky’s 50 crotchets per minute is qualified by tempo rubato. In the fifth bar there’s poco accelerando, in the seventh in tempo, and in the eleventh in tempo again. OK, how flexible - not only how much, but also in what way? How much acceleration? Do you return to the “proper” speed with, or without, the rubato? What’s the point of the second in tempo, when nothing has changed in between? As if this wasn't already vague enough, the bassoon is marked ad lib.(!), and other instruments are asked to play “a bit out of tempo”, and “expressively” and, in all this, loudness and dynamic gradations don’t even rate a mention.

I’m not suggesting a recipe for anarchy - perish the thought! - just saying that there is always room for manoeuvre, no matter how supposedly “exact” the score. The main interpretative criterion for the Violin Concerto must be the “baroque” flavour, which implies that the fast outer movements should flow without let or hindrance and the two arias should be played in a relatively detached manner or, if you prefer, “cool”. In this respect, Stern and Stravinsky - bless his cotton socks - come up trumps. Playing it as straight as a die, they let their basic tempi do all the work, restricting rubato and portamento to telling minima, and channelling all their emotive energies into touch and dynamics.

Chung’s powerful personality seems resistant to the kind of self-effacement demanded by the nature of the music: her view, reflected in her very forward placement, is simply too insistently virtuosic and riddled with romantic expression. She can’t resist inflecting the tempi of the outer movements, and overcooks the arias with sensually throaty tone and Tchaikovsky-like angst. The up-tempo core of Aria I, for example, ends up sounding like Prokofiev.

To a lesser extent, Perlman also falls prey to the same temptation to over-tighten the emotional screws but, at least some of the time, he does remember to efface himself. This makes all the more bemusing his mad rush of blood in the Capriccio, where he slaps soupy slurs seemingly everywhere there’s even the hint of a hook to hang one on. Oh, it sounds fabulous, but is it sympathetic to the character of the music? I think not, and should you need convincing, just listen to Stern, whose slurs are nowhere near as profligate and are applied, with supreme circumspection, like gloves to the music’s grateful hands.

Overall, if you want to hear this concerto played just as it ought to be, a “Stravinskian take on the baroque”, then please seek out the Stern/Stravinsky recording. Stern’s considerate approach to the music, in spite of a couple of minor intonational glitches, is a wonder to behold. Stravinsky’s direction is unique in my experience. Amongst the innumerable nuances, I would especially mention his “layering” of the orchestral accompaniment to the singing violin in Aria II, floating and diaphanous where others, however gently, merely “chug-chug”. My old LP, much played, still sounds marvellous if I ignore the surface noise. I can’t vouch for the CD remastering of this particular work, but the parts of this series that I have acquired on CD are all re-mastered to a highly acceptable standard. Otherwise, you will find so much to enjoy from Perlman and Barenboim, who come within shouting distance of Stravinsky’s special “neo-baroque” quality and are, to my ears, preferable to Chung and Previn, who don’t. The recording, although necessarily quite close, suits the music well whilst the sound quality won’t disappoint any except die-hard audiophiles (who shouldn’t be wasting their time listening to stuff like this, anyway!).

Right: Prokofiev No. 2! No “special considerations” required: this is a concerto in the good, old-fashioned romantic virtuoso manner. The self-same Chung/Previn disc again serves as a comparison, and has one immediate advantage over the Elatus CD: it includes both the Prokofiev concertos. In this respect, the cash-conscious will have to do their sums: the Decca CD contains more music, but the Elatus is less expensive!

Chung’s recordings of these concertos have long held sway, largely for the exact same reasons for which I marked her down in the Stravinsky. Equally, whilst Previn is hardly the “conductor of choice” for Stravinsky, he’s right at the top of the pile for Prokofiev. It’ll come as no surprise when I admit that I bought this CD for their superb Prokofiev, and regarded their Stravinsky as merely an “interesting” bonus.

Chung and Previn’s basic tempi are spacious, but rather than just being slow, they are in fact giving themselves some headroom to accommodate the first movement’s extreme changes of tempo: when required they get a real shift on, traversing those wide tempo variations with poise and fluency. Perlman and Barenboim adopt tauter basic tempi throughout, and consequently their first movement accelerandi are less daringly vertiginous. However, “safety first” does not seem to “rule, OK?” because a couple of their decelerandi rather tend to slither untidily down the slippery slope. The Chicago orchestra is also hard-pressed to match the LSO, partly because Barenboim doesn’t seem to have Previn’s sure grasp of Prokofiev’s weird and wonderful palette, but also because Perlman’s violin is now even further to the fore than Chung’s, and when feeling effusive tends to overshadow the orchestra. To be fair, this remains the case with Chung, though to a noticeably lesser extent.

Of course, this is an old problem, dating right back to the days of acoustic recording, when technical limitations dictated you had to get the soloist, and let the accompaniment take care of itself. As Andrew Keener says, the correct setting for any “spot mic.” is obtained by pushing up the fader until you can just detect its effect on the sound-picture, then easing it back half a notch. This applies equally for a soloist spot or an orchestral spot. For some reason, engineers seem to have a tendency to overlook that italicised bit or - particularly when spotting a Really Big Name - they may even reverse the direction of that final adjustment. Whatever, I wish they’d stop doing it, and be a bit more mindful of the importance of the orchestral contribution - especially when it is as significant as Prokofiev’s.

The second movement is a tricky one for performers, as it’s marked “andante assai”. What exactly does that mean?  Well, “andante” literally means “going”, though musically it is generally taken to mean “going slowly”, at a walking pace compared with allegro’s jog-trot. “Assai” means “fairly”, as in “fairly windy”, a qualification that implies “not so ‘windy’ as just plain ‘windy’”. So, what is “not so ‘going slowly’ as just plain ‘going slowly’”? Is andante assai slower than andante, or not so slow as andante? Is the “assai” exhorting performers to relax a bit more, or keep things moving along a bit more? “Is this nit-picking?” you may ask. Well, let’s look at these two performances.

Chung takes 9'52 compared with Perlman’s 9'09, a substantial but not unduly alarming difference of 8%. In isolation, neither sounds particularly uncomfortable at its chosen pace. Set them side by side, though, and Chung starts to feel on the adagio side of andante, taking the more relaxed option for “assai”. The on-the-beat “Albertski bass” accompaniment is inclined to plod somewhat, this tendency held at bay only by Previn’s sensitive shading. Comparatively, Perlman takes his “assai” as a prohibition on loitering, with or without intent, drawing the successive notes into closer proximity, and thereby eliciting from the melody a more songful quality that you don’t often hear. His instrument’s voice reinforces the feeling: soft-grained, earthy, rosiny and “Russian” where Chung’s is burnished and more “cosmopolitan”. If only Barenboim had possessed Previn’s sense of shading! However, Barenboim is fully alert to their chosen tempo: thus, in the fulsome statement of the theme just before the faster central diversion, he puts Previn in the shade with the impulsion he wrings from the bass strings.

At the start of the finale, Chung sounds a mite laboured where, in line with his strategic tempo scheme, Perlman is more propulsive and more immediately exciting. However, in his choice of speed he may be too hasty, as Prokofiev’s ben marcato hints that he has something up his sleeve. This main theme is not all that steady on its feet, and the secondary subject has a slightly bibulous edge. As the movement proceeds this becomes more pronounced, while the main subject shows an increasing tendency to break down into drunkenly careening figurations. What we have is a vivid impression of increasing intoxication, a drunkard’s walk underlined by some delirious lurches of pulse as well as harmony! The ending sounds just like a drunk lurching along the street in the general direction of a lamp-post. Try as he may, lurching this way and that, he simply can’t avoid walking smack into it!

Chung and Previn project this with a conviction sufficient to have me wondering what they’d put in their coffee during the recording session. It must have been something, because they forgot to tell the offstage castanets to play with the door open - you can hear them, just about, if you press your ear to the loudspeaker. Sadly Perlman, whose tone is far better suited to the scenario, seems to miss the point: his drunk doesn’t even try to dodge the lamp-post, simply walking straight on into it. By way of compensation, he and Barenboim at least remembered to open the door on their offstage castanets, and at their faster tempo the clarinet roulades sound more thrilling. In case you’re wondering, the castanets are not actually “offstage” - I’m just expressing my consternation that such an unusual percussion effect should be so ridiculously remote!

So, in the Prokofiev the final score seems to be Chung 2, Perlman 1½, though perhaps the gap between the two teams isn’t quite as wide as the score-line suggests. Certainly, if you haven’t heard Chung and Previn, you’d be happy with what Perlman and Barenboim have to offer - especially if you’re looking for this particular coupling. The sound is fine, although the slight dryness that suited the Stravinsky does Prokofiev’s succulent timbres fewer favours.

You also get an added “bonus”: the end of the Prokofiev is greeted with half a minute’s worth of ecstatic audience approbation. Unfortunately this is instantaneous, not separately banded, so you’re always going to get some of it. Surely, when this is unavoidable, it isn’t beyond the wit of the recording team to do a quick take of the last bar during rehearsal, then edit in the conclusive ambience and leave the applause as a separately banded option?

These are indeed “live” recordings, the good news being that while the music’s playing, the audience emulates a crowd of church mice. The bad news is that Orchestra Hall sounds like it was a day short of a visit from the air-conditioning maintenance man, as there is a hiss with a hint of mechanical rumble in the background. There’s an idea, though - a digital recording with built-in surface noise, for the delectation of analogue audio fans!

Phillip Huscher’s well-written booklet notes are concise but informative, a useful background to anyone lucky enough to be trying these wonderful works for the first time. Packaging is less satisfactory. The Elatus “brand design” is hardly inspiring, and the playing times shown on the back are in minute print, white on black. For those with less than 20-20 vision, it’s just as well that the same information is presented better within.

All in all, not an exceptional disc, but one with a number of interesting things to say, particularly in the andante assai of the Prokofiev, and the sheer sound of Perlman’s playing is a pleasure in itself.

Paul Serotsky

Gerard Hoffnung CDs

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