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Romantic Violin Concertos
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Violin Concerto in D major Op.61 (1806) [45:40]*
Max BRUCH (1838-1920)
Violin Concerto No.1 in G minor Op.26 (1866) [25:48]#
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Violin Concerto in E minor, Op.64 (1845) [27:58]^
Peter Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Violin Concerto in D major Op. 35 (1878) [35:08]^
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Violin Concerto in D minor Op.47 (1903 rev. 1905) [31:43]%
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Violin Concerto No.2 in G minor Op.63 (1935) [26:35]%
David Oistrakh (violin), Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française/André Cluytens *; Nikolaj Znaider (violin), London Philharmonic Orchestra/Lawrence Foster #; Augustin Dumay (violin), London Symphony Orchestra/Emil Tchakarov ^; Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin), Philharmonia Orchestra/Mariss Jansons%.
rec. 8, 10 November 1958, Salle Wagram, Paris *; 26-28 April 1999, Watford Town Hall #; 2-4 March 1988, No.1 Studio, Abbey Road ^; 8-10 August 1991, No.1 Studio, Abbey Road %. ADD*/DDD
EMI CLASSICS TRIPLE 5008992 [3 CDs: 71:19 + 63:06 + 58:48]

The other releases in this first batch of EMI Triples tend to pull together recordings that were initially conceived as series.  They include Mariss Jansons' Rachmaninov cycle, his complete Dvořák recordings for EMI, Blomstedt's first Nielsen cycle, Sawallisch's Brahms cycle and Martinon's Ravel

This issue is different.  Under the banner of “Romantic Violin Concertos”, it resurrects two unconnected discs from the back catalogue, and adds a third disc that yokes a classic recording with a performance from one of today's most exciting young violinists. 

The classic recording is, of course, David Oistrakh's recording of the Beethoven with Cluytens.  Of his four studio recordings of this piece, this one is probably Oistrakh's best, edging out even his earlier EMI studio performance with Ehrling.  True, that earlier account is perhaps more urgent, and there is little to complain about in relation to its clean mono sound.  This recording, however, sees Oistrakh at his most refined, shaping Beethoven's lyrical phrases with a sweet full tone and classical poise.  It helps that he has a sympathetic Beethovenian on the podium.  Cluytens had already begun recording his classy Beethoven cycle with the Berlin Philharmonic when this recording was made, and his attention to the detail of the score, clarifying of internal parts and careful phrasing help to give this recording its famous beauty.  While the violin is balanced forward, Walter Legge's superb ear never allows it to overwhelm the orchestra.  If you do not own this recording, you need it.  Of course, if you are an Oistrakh fan first and foremost, you may prefer to acquire this recording in harness with another of his concerto performances – his Philharmonia performance of Mozart's third violin concerto – on EMI's Legends series. 

If memory serves me correctly, the Oistrakh/Cluytens Beethoven concerto first appeared on CD in harness with Oistrakh's distinguished account of the Bruch No.1, which has been re-released in  EMI's Great Recordings of the Century series.  As it happens, Oistrakh's Beethoven sits beside another Bruch No.1 on the first disc of this EMI Triple.  Nikolaj Znaider would have been as prolific a recording artist as Vengerov or Shaham had he come along a little earlier, before the “major” labels began imploding.  His Bruch No.1 is confident and forthright.  He modifies tempo without sounding willful and pours out Bruch's lovely melodies with ease but without a trace of routine.  He is warmly supported by Foster and an energised LPO, though the sudden improvement in recorded sound from Oistrakh's warm but slightly dry analogue to the full Technicolor bloom of recent digital sound is distinctly noticeable.  This recording comes from Znaider's debut EMI disc, which also featured the Nielsen concerto.  I missed that disc the first time around, but if his Nielsen is anything like his Bruch, I hope EMI manages to re-release it. 

The third disc in this set is also well worth adding to your collection.  Frank Peter Zimmermann  is not the most flashy soloist, but his sparkling technique and clear tone are perfectly suited to these two concertos.  Zimmermann's playing in the Sibelius is faultless, his intonation perfect and his command of the notes breathtaking.  He does not dig into the piece the way, say, Perlman does, but he is no less compelling.  His charming performance of the second of Prokofiev's concertos is similarly impressive.  As excellent as Zimmermann's playing is, Mariss Jansons and the Philharmonia deserve much of the credit for the success of these two performances.  In both scores, Jansons draws finely detailed and conversational playing from the orchestra, and the playing of the winds in the Sibelius is given welcome prominence. 

The second disc is disappointing.  Augustin Dumay is usually a violinist who can be relied upon to deliver performances of fantasy tempered by taste and refinement.  Here, though, his sense of fantasy is a disfigured beast that runs amok.  Dumay is wayward in the Mendelssohn, pulling tempi around with abandon and phrasing flagrantly.  It is the sort of performance that will have you shaking your head in disbelief.  The Tchaikovsky receives the sort of performance that will have you reaching for the eject button.  As if the gratuitous point making and look-at-me antics were not bad enough, Dumay's technique fails him here too.  He pushes tempo and gets out of time with the orchestra, his tuning is suspect and he fudges more than a few notes in his rapid runs.  The cadenza of the first movement is a painful experience.  The orchestra could never redeem these performances, but it does not try to either.  The LPO plays with bluster in both recordings but overall sounds uninvolved and under-rehearsed. 

The concertos by Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn are – together with the Brahms concerto, which is inexplicably missing from this set – the quintessential Romantic violin concertos, and should be the centerpiece of this collection.  That being the case, you would expect that EMI would retrieve top quality performances of each piece from their back catalogue for this Triple.  For the Mendelssohn, EMI could have selected either of the excellent Perlman performances on their books – I prefer the fresher analogue account with Previn and the LSO to the later digital performance with Haitink and the Concertgebouw – or a performance by Kennedy, Menuhin, Zimmermann or a number of others.  As for the Tchaikovsky concerto, there's the Kogan and Silvestri, Perlman and Ormandy, or even the 11 year old Sarah Chang with Sir Colin Davis – any of these  would have slipped into this collection nicely.  Instead EMI has resurrected a disc that deserved to be deleted. 

As noted at the outset, the concertos on this Triple have been drawn together on the basis that they are all of Romantic violin concertos.  Certainly the Bruch, Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky concertos are at the core of the Romantic violin repertory.  Whether the Sibelius qualifies is debatable, but its admission to the club can probably be conceded.  It is a stretch to call the Beethoven concerto “Romantic”, though.  It may post-date the Eroica, but it is certainly classical in its thematic material and construction.  As for the Prokofiev, warm though it may be, this is neo-classicism rather than romanticism.  Perhaps I am being unnecessarily obsessive about classifications. However, it would be expected that a collection of Romantic violin concertos would stick with the central Romantic concerto repertory. As much as I love it and as much as it is the highlight of this set, Oistrakh's recording of the Beethoven should have been replaced here by one of his two recordings of the Brahms concerto for EMI (on GROC with Klemperer or on Encore with Szell), or either of Perlman's, or Little's or someone else's.  The Prokofiev should have been ousted for, say, Zimmermann's, Chung's or Perlman's recording of the Dvořák concerto, or perhaps even Kremer's recording of the Schumann. 

As a set of key Romantic violin concertos, this set does not really deliver what would be expected.  Nonetheless, EMI has brought together four good performances that are well worth hearing, and if you don't already have it, Oistrakh's Beethoven alone is worth the price of this set, Romantic or not.

Tim Perry 



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