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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Violin Concerto in D, Op. 61 (1806) [45:49]
Violin Sonata No. 9 in A, Op. 47 “Kreutzer” (1802) [38:18]
Vadim Repin (violin)
Martha Argerich (piano)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Riccardo Muti
rec. Vienna Musikverein, Grosser Saal, February 2007; Lugano, Auditorio “ Stello Molo” RSI, June 2007. DDD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 6596 [45:49 + 38:18] 


Beethoven composed his violin concerto in 1806 for Franz Clement, a leading violinist of the day. The story goes that Beethoven delivered the solo part so late that Clement had to sight-read it. At the first performance, the soloist stopped between the first and second movements and played a solo work of his own composition, on one string and with the violin upside down as a bit of nose-thumbing toward the composer. The debut was not successful and the concerto lay dormant until the 1840s when it was revived by Joseph Joachim in performances conducted by Felix Mendelssohn. Since then it has become one of the most important works in the violin repertoire and has been recorded dozens of times.

You wouldn’t know any of that had you read Deutsche Grammophon’s pathetic booklet. It contains only a cheap essay about Vadim Repin’s experience with the concerto complete with three or four paragraphs of sycophantic bragging by annotator Michael Church about how well Repin plays the work. Not, mind you, that there’s anything wrong with an artist expressing his thoughts about the music he’s just recorded, but, one might think that a company as venerable as DG would have thought to at least have mentioned the composer, what was his name again … oh yes, Ludwig van Beethoven.

The glory of this concerto lies in its lack of outward virtuosity. Beethoven the superstar pianist could have easily composed a solo part that was long on flashy finger-work and catchy tunes. Instead, he created one of the most inwardly expressive and personal works of his career. Repin has made a very conscious choice to exploit the work’s reflective nature and has delivered a performance crafted with great care, abundant warmth and loads of heart. From the very opening, his tone is sweet and although perfectly balanced with the orchestra, consistently understated so as to give the music pride of place above his own considerable ability to play it. Even the first movement cadenza (by Fritz Kreisler) is played with the utmost dignity and respect. This is some of the sweetest, most expressive violin playing that I have heard in years.

The second movement is heartrendingly calm and gentle, again marked by Repin’s sweet and supple tone and his spot-on intonation. Muti and the VPO provide an extremely sensitive accompaniment, with some beautiful playing from the horns and the winds. Things finally get a bit boisterous by the final movement with Muti letting the orchestra play more vigorously than at any other time in the concerto. Throughout, our soloist maintains his self-control, giving credence to Yehudi Menuhin’s quote that Repin is “simply the best, the most perfect violinist I have ever heard.” High praise indeed, but if this performance is evidence, such praise is well deserved. I’ve heard perhaps twenty recordings of this concerto, and I cannot recall one that has held my attention so thoroughly, or one that has made me want immediately to listen a second time. Muti and Repin are a match made in heaven and are to be commended for the exquisite good taste with which they present this war-horse!

Beethoven originally dedicated his ninth violin sonata to the half-Polish, half-West Indian virtuoso George Bridgetower (1780-1860) but as happened from time to time, a bar-room disagreement between the two caused the composer to fly into one of his famous rages and destroy the dedication. He later dedicated it to Rudolphe Kreutzer, one of the leading violinists of his day, who never performed it and declared it unplayable. Leo Tolstoy would later use the work as the germ of a short-story about passions run amok. Leoš Janáček would in turn find Tolstoy’s story to be the inspiration for his first string quartet.

The first movement opens with a trick that would show up again in the fourth piano concerto wherein the soloist begins alone to be joined later by the rest of the band. The Haydnesque soliloquy gives way to stormy and at times even raucous music, sprinkled with moments of repose, only to take off again in a tear. Unlike in the concerto performance, Repin pours a good deal more of his Russian soul into the sonata and he is matched with a vengeance by Martha Argerich, who is never passive in her playing. Repin’s tone is more edgy, less sweet than in the concerto, but that is not a bad thing. The tension is palpable and there are moments while listening that you have to remind yourself to breathe.

In stark contrast to the opening movement, there follows a serene set of variations, music that is so much happier and relaxed than the opening movement that you wonder if the music is by the same composer. That Beethoven can maintain such a high level of interest in a slow movement of more than fourteen minutes’ duration is testimony to his genius. The interplay between Repin and Argerich is at times playful and always very natural.

The final movement gets off to a rollicking start with a thunderous chord from the piano followed by a jolly and contrapuntal presto, joyously tossed off by both artists with considerable ease and panache.

This is surely one of the most satisfying Beethoven recordings to hit the shelves in some time and is one to own regardless of the duplication it may cause in your library. These are truly masterful performances; performances that for once reveal something new and interesting about well-known works. Repin in particular has thought this music through completely and put his own stamp on it, a stamp that stands to become more and more collectible as this fine artist matures! 

Kevin Sutton

see also Review by Leslie Wright




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