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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64 (1844) [26:56]
Max BRUCH (1838-1920)
Violin Concerto No.1 in G minor, Op. 26 (1864-68) [23:40]
Romance for viola and orchestra in F major, Op. 85 (c. 1911) [8:23] 
Janine Jansen (violin, viola)
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly
rec. live, 5-9 September 2006, Gewandhaus, Leipzig, Germany (live performances). DDD
DECCA 4758133 [59:05]

I can almost hear the groans and see the grimaces as here we have yet another recording of those warhorses of the violin concerto repertoire from Mendelssohn and Bruch. These two highly popular scores make a predictable, if at first sight, risk-free coupling for the considerable talents of the Dutch violinist Janine Jansen. However, the drawbacks are that the competition in the catalogues is extremely fierce, as both scores have been recorded by virtually every violinist worth his or her salt, often becoming benchmarks by which performers are judged. In my collection I have several acclaimed recordings that are of such high quality that there is little to choose between each account.
Jansen continues to make a significant impression on the classical music scene and Decca seem to have placed a great deal of confidence and weight in support of her promotion. I recall her making a successful return to the 2006 BBC Proms concerts this summer performing the Mozart Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, K 219. We are told that on this recording of the Mendelssohn and Bruch concertos Jansen plays a violin by Antonio Stradivari, Cremona 1727 ‘Barrere’.
In 1838 Mendelssohn wrote to his great friend the eminent violinist Ferdinand David who was to premiere the Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64, “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.”
It seemed inevitable that Mendelssohn’s E minor Concerto should emerge as a serious musical essay and is acknowledged as one of the masterworks of classical music, achieving great popularity with the public and performers alike. Music writer Louis Biancolli summarised 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 Janine Jansen performs with poise and sensitivity making full use of broad dynamics. Jansen’s elevated expressive playing at 1:47-2:27 is spine-tingling and I loved her interpretation of the challenging cadenza at 7:04-8:47. I found the degree of dexterity that she displays from 11:01 to 11:55 is quite astonishing.  
The captivating second movement Andante is characterised by a swaying, lyrical theme. Jansen dismisses the difficulty of the solo part of the middle section with confidently relaxed playing that never borders on the languid, although I would have preferred slightly more weight. The ebullient Finale pays homage to the virtuoso tradition of the violin concerto. Jansen’s playing is buoyant and spirited, eminently matching Mendelssohn’s world of fairytale enchantment. The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, who have long historical associations with Mendelssohn’s score, and their conductor Riccardo Chailly provide the soloist with natural and sensitive orchestral support.
In this highly competitive marketplace there are many excellent versions of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. Certainly this outstanding account can sit comfortably alongside the very best versions. My long time favourite recording is the one from Jaime Laredo, directing the Scottish Chamber Orchestra on IMP Classics PCD 829, c/w the famous Bruch. My copy provides no details of the recording venue and dates. This Laredo account, with the same coupling, has been reissued on the Regis label RRC 1152.
I remain an admirer of the bold and characterful version from Kyung Wha Chung and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra under Charles Dutoit on Decca 460 976-2, c/w the Bruch concerto and the Scottish Fantasy. Another superb recording is the direct and stylish period-instrument version from Viktoria Mullova with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique under John Eliot Gardiner on Philips 473 872-2, c/w the Beethoven Violin Concerto (see review).
Composed between 1864-68 Bruch dedicated his Violin Concerto No. 1 to the eminent, Hungarian-born violinist Joseph Joachim who went on to premiere the revised version in 1868. Eclipsed by the tremendous popularity of the G minor it is often forgotten that Bruch actually wrote two other fine violin concertos as well as many other splendid scores. In his day he was primarily recognised for his large-scale choral works that earned him a reputation that for a short time outshone that of Brahms.
In the first movement Vorspiel: Allegro moderato Jansen’s interpretation is convincing and highly poetic. Her lyrical aria-like approach seems just perfect. Jansen does not over-accentuate the Jewish sounding melody in the same way as Maxim Fedotov on Naxos. I loved the spirit that suffuses her splendid playing at 1:50-2:11 and 4:26-4:31. She clearly relishes the long melodic lines at 2:34-5:10 with warm-hearted and buoyant playing. My promotion copy has a slight glitch at 5:34 (track 5). 
In the beautiful central movement Adagio one continues to be impressed by the playing which is light as a feather, infused with tender sensuousness, ensuring that the interpretation is never over-sentimental. Her expressive playing at several points provides a remarkable depth of blissful passion that can make the hairs stand up on the back of the neck. Jansen displays her expertise with great boldness in the brilliant virtuoso passages in the development section of the Finale. Throughout the score Jansen provides a natural understanding of the music’s rhythmic impetus. With great assurance she navigates a broad range of emotions with her vibrant and characterful playing. The first class orchestral support is sympathetic, frequently full-bodied and often beautiful. 
There are a large number of recommendable Bruchs and this recording is certainly right up there with the finest. My preferred version is by Jaime Laredo, who directs the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, available from IMP Classics PCS 829, c/w the Mendelssohn. Laredo’s special account is warm and extremely characterful; so full of joy and spontaneity. These Laredo performances have also been reissued on Regis RRC 1152. In addition I am full of admiration for the memorable account from Maxim Fedotov and the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra under Dmitry Yablonsky on Naxos 8.557689 (see review). Recorded in 2004 in Moscow, Fedotov’s superb playing displays his innate understanding of the varying emotional states of the Bruch score. 
Another favourite version of the Bruch was recorded in Leipzig in 1977 by Salvatore Accardo with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under Kurt Masur on Philips Duo 462 167-2. This is an interpretation that sees the stylish Accardo providing vital and characterful playing. The desirable couplings on Accardo’s all-Bruch set are the Violin Concertos 2 & 3; Serenade, Op. 75 and the Scottish Fantasy, Op. 46. Primarily for his exquisite tone and thrilling playing the historical 1962 recording from Jascha Heifetz with the New Symphony Orchestra of London under Sir Malcolm Sargent on RCA 09026 61745-2 draws considerable approval from a large group of admirers. The generous RCA disc also includes the Scottish Fantasy, Op. 46 and the Vieuxtemps Violin Concerto No. 5.
This advance promotion recording provides very little information on Bruch’s Romance for viola and orchestra in F major, a late work that I believe was composed around 1911. Fore this rarely heard score Jansen exchanges her violin for the viola to impressive effect. Her playing is highly expressive with a yearning quality and melancholic richness. In her hands Bruch’s score is a very personal and romantic love letter performed with a crystalline beauty.
These are very impressive recordings from the Decca engineers that are vivid and well balanced, although there is just a hint of sharpness in the forte passages. Evidently these recordings were made at live performances, yet I could not detect any audience applause or noise. I believe the Decca label have missed an opportunity to increase the desirability of the release as there is certainly sufficient room on the disc to have accommodated another concerto such as: Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in D Minor; Spohr’s Violin Concerto No. 8 in A minor, Op.47 ‘In Form einer Gesangsszene’ or Vieuxtemps’ Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Minor.
Janine Jansen fully deserves her exalted reputation and doesn’t put a foot wrong with this excellent Decca release of two staples of the violin concerto repertoire.
Michael Cookson


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