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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64 (1844) [27.10]
Ludwig Van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61 (1806) [41.34]
Nikolaj Znaider, violin
Israel Philharmonic Orchestra/Zubin Mehta
rec. live, Frederic R. Mann Auditorium, Tel Aviv, Israel, 17-22 July 2005. DDD
BMG-RCA RED SEAL 82876 69217-2 [71.17]

Born in Denmark to Polish-Israeli parents, violinist Nikolaj Znaider has here recorded two of the most towering masterpieces of the violin repertoire. Znaider plays the Antonio Stradivarius ‘ex-Liebig’ 1704. The recordings were made at live concert performances although the audience is so quiet I would not have known.

Znaider views recording the Beethoven Violin Concerto as "a dream ... the ultimate challenge", describing the work as, "the ‘Bible’ in the concert repertoire for the violin". Znaider plays Fritz Kreisler’s cadenzas, which he believes enhance the integration between movements better than any others. The choice of the pairing is significant for Znaider. He sees the Mendelssohn Concerto as the ideal coupling, "Not only is it so different from the Beethoven. In fact, for me the two concertos represent a study in contrasts."

 

Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64 (1844)

Mendelssohn wrote in July 1838 to his great friend, the eminent violinist Ferdinand David, "I’d like to write a violin concerto for you next winter; one in E minor sticks in my head, the beginning of which will not leave me in peace". Despite his good intentions, consultation with various friends and the persuasion of David to complete it, Mendelssohn did not get around to serious work on the score until 1844. He had been busy with other compositions and conducting projects. Mendelssohn collaborated closely with David, inviting his suggestions about both the technique of the solo part and the suitability of the music as a vehicle for the violin. An abiding concern was that the violin part "could be executed with the greatest delicacy". He deferred to David in most of the technical questions, and it seems that David himself was responsible for the work’s single and finely crafted cadenza. Drowning in pitiful uncertainty Mendelssohn continued to make various modifications right up to the time of the première. Both men had contempt for the frequently heard ‘empty showpiece style’ typical of early Romantic era concerto. For Mendelssohn such works contained little more than "juggler’s tricks and rope dancer’s feats."

It seemed inevitable that Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto should emerge as a serious musical essay and is acknowledged as one of the great masterworks of classical music. It has achieved tremendous popularity both in the recording studio and the concert hall. Musicologist Sir Donald Tovey wrote, "I rather envy the enjoyment of anyone who should hear the Mendelssohn Concerto for the first time and find that, like Hamlet, it was full of quotations." Music writer Louis Biancolli summarized the character of this composition of Mendelssohn’s maturity, "In classical poise, melodic suavity, and refined romantic feeling, it is an epitome of his style ... Finesse, cultivated taste, and an unerring sense of the appropriate were among his chief attributes."

Mendelssohn had a special gift for melody and it is easy to see why the memorable and beautiful opening theme would not leave his thoughts. The orchestration of the first movement allegro moderato is primarily designed to show off the violinist rather than overpower the listener with intricacy, in which soloist Nikolaj Znaider displays gentle and sensitive playing. Especially successful is Znaider’s fine interpretation of the challenging cadenza part. The captivating second movement andante is characterized by a swaying, lyrical theme. Znaider seems to acknowledge the difficulty of the solo part of the middle section with unhurried and deliberate playing that at times borders on the languid. The ebullient finale pays homage to the virtuoso tradition of the Violin Concerto, exhibiting buoyant themes at a swift pace. Znaider’s playing is at times rather tentative when compared to the spirited and sparkling interpretations of his main rivals. There is a sense of inability freely to express himself, feeling too constrained by the requirements of the movement.

Throughout the Violin Concerto, Mehta and the IPO prove highly sympathetic partners. However, to compete with the very finest available versions I would have preferred an increased vitality and extra expression from Znaider. I found Znaider’s timbre rather light and fragile compared to the weightier, more silvery-toned rival versions from Laredo, Chung and Mullova. Furthermore, it would have been advantageous if the soloist had been placed slightly further forward on the recording as the quieter passages struggled to be heard resulting in considerable volume adjusting.

With the exception of the Beethoven Violin Concerto there can be few other works in the whole of the concerto repertoire with as many excellent versions available as the Mendelssohn. It’s a fiercely competitive market. My long time favourite recording is the celebrated account from soloist Jaime Laredo, who directs the Scottish Chamber Orchestra on IMP Classics PCD 829, c/w Bruch Violin concerto No. 1 in G minor. I understand that this Laredo account, with the same coupling, has been re-released on the Regis label RRC 1152, at super budget price. I also favour the version from Kyung Wha Chung and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra under Charles Dutoit on Decca 460 976-2 as part of their ‘Legends’ Series 460 976-2, c/w Bruch Violin concerto No. 1 in G minor and Scottish Fantasy. Another superb recording is the period-instrument version from Viktoria Mullova with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique under John Eliot Gardiner on Philips 473 872-2, c/w Beethoven Violin Concerto.

Beethoven Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61 (1806) [41.34]

In 1806 Beethoven was persuaded to write his monumental Violin Concerto in D Major, for Franz Clement, leader of the Theatre Orchestra at Vienna. Clement had been a child prodigy and was reputed to be a remarkable violinist with a prodigious memory. Beethoven was still writing the score right up to the last possible moment before Clement’s first performance. Consequently, Clement was ill-prepared not having been able to rehearse all of the score and having to sight-read certain sections. Not surprisingly the première was unsuccessful, meeting with unenthusiastic and even hostile reviews. Johann Nepomuk Möser wrote of the première, "Its many beauties must be ceded, but it must also be acknowledged that the continuity is often completely broken and that the endless repetitions of a few commonplace passages could easily lead to weariness ... It is feared that if Beethoven continues to follow his present course, it will go ill with him." Reputedly only three performances were given of the work between 1806 and 1844. It seems the second performance was given by Alois Tomasini, the son of Haydn’s Eszterháza concertmaster, who played it in 1812. Pierre Baillot performed it in 1828 and Henri Vieuxtemps ten years after that. Significantly, the eminent violist Joseph Joachim performed the work in London, in 1844, when he was only fourteen, under the direction of Mendelssohn. Joachim began to perform the work regularly which greatly assisted it to find a permanent place in the repertoire.

The Beethoven Violin Concerto, although following the conventional design of the classical concerto, consists mainly of concise musical material. The work was clearly not the typical display piece that audiences were used to hearing and it found only slow acceptance by virtuosi such as Spohr who at that time had their own concertos primarily in mind, with the desire to showcase their particular virtuosic strengths. Beethoven’s towering musical concepts, mirroring the spirit of reform, democracy and revolution, and his idiomatic treatment of the violin and pianistic thinking, had to wait for a later era to be appreciated. Renowned violin soloist Hilary Hahn recently commented that, "the Beethoven is, for me, one of the supreme compositions written for any instrument, and its seamless combination of high lyricism and dramatic depth has appealed to me since the first time I heard it. From its opening five-note drumbeat to its final, joyous cadence, it gives me the impression of passing through a lifetime of emotions and experience to emerge wiser and somehow triumphant on the other side."

The length of the first movement of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto alone exceeds that of nearly every earlier complete concerto for the violin and in character the work is even more strikingly different from that of its predecessors. The opening measures proclaim it as being at once expansive and dramatic, and, while the solo writing is extremely demanding, there is virtually nothing in the way of bravura material in the movement. Znaider brings out the contrasting moods of sunshine and shadow in the with a striking steadfastness and considerable intensity.

The slow movement larghetto, essentially a romance in modified variation form, reaches far beyond the sweetness of the two independent Romances that Beethoven had composed earlier, to attain a level of sublimity paralleled among his works only in his most intimate chamber music. The impressive Znaider provides a poetic and tender interpretation of this reflective movement. The larghetto leads directly into the concluding movement, a cheerful and sturdy rondo, for which the apparent model is the ‘hunting’ music found in the symphonic and chamber-music finales of Mozart and Haydn. In Znaider’s confident hands the solid and earthy character comes to the fore combined with substantial charm and folksy good spirits.

The excellent players of the IPO will have performed this Violin Concerto hundreds of times and with this impressively controlled performance they avoid any sense of the routine. On the evidence of this recording the soloist seems far more comfortable with the Beethoven’s than with the Mendelssohn where sadly his interpretation disappoints.

My preferred first choice for the Beethoven is from Nathan Milstein and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under William Steinberg on EMI Mono ‘Great Recordings Of The Century’ 5 67583-2, c/w Brahms Violin Concerto. I am also extremely fond of the account from Wolfgang Schneiderhan and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Eugen Jochum on Deutsche Grammophon ADD ‘The Originals’ 447 403-2. Using period-instruments another favourite recording from my collection is the superb digital account from Viktoria Mullova with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique under John Eliot Gardiner on Philips 473 872-2, c/w the Mendelssohn.

Competition in this repertoire is extremely fierce and there are many excellent accounts available. I have mixed feelings about this release. Soloist Znaider provides an impressive performance of the Beethoven and one less so in the Mendelssohn.

Michael Cookson

 

 



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