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Miklós RÓZSA (1907 - 1995)
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra Op.24 [31:56]
Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897 - 1957)
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major Op.35 [26:57]
Manuel PONCE (1882 - 1948)
Estrellita (arr. Heiftez/Peter Ash) [3:24]
Arthur BENJAMIN (1893 - 1960)
Jamaican Rumba (arr. Primrose/Ash) [2:01]
Stephen FOSTER (1826 - 1864)
Jeanie with the light brown hair (arr. Heifetz/Ash) [3:44]
Matthew Trusler (violin)
Düsseldorfer Symphoniker/Yasuo Shinozaki
rec. Düsseldorf, Tonhalle, June 2008
Experience Classicsonline

This is a very good disc of some really beautiful violin playing. Matthew Trusler has recorded this for his own record label and as the liner-note makes clear the programme choice is very much of music close to his heart. It is, however, entering a very crowded field. Certainly as far as the Korngold Concerto is concerned barely a month goes by without a new recording appearing from a major international soloist. In this month’s list of releases there was one from Pavel Šporcl on Supraphon (SU 3962-2) and before that Philip Quint on Naxos (8.570791), Nikolaj Znaider on RCA (710336) and Renaud Capuçon on Virgin (6945890) - fine players all. Given the decades of relative neglect of this achingly romantic and beautiful score one wonders whether the composer would be delighted or bemused by its relatively sudden restoration to the repertoire.

All of the discs mentioned above are variously coupled but I think Trusler scores heavily with his choice of the Miklós Rózsa Concerto for several reasons. Both of these concertos were written for Jascha Heifetz and knowingly or otherwise his spirit imbues them. As is well known both composers were heavily involved with writing scores for Hollywood movies whilst at the same time trying to pursue composing careers in the “serious” concert hall. Korngold was the only composer from Hollywood’s golden age who was allowed to retain copyright over the thematic material he composed for films. This allowed him to draw upon some of those films for material he used in the concerto. Conversely, Rózsa based a film score - The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes on themes from his concerto. Though the concertos are only separated by a few years in compositional terms they occupy very different spiritual worlds and that juxtaposition too makes for fascinating listening.

The shade of Heifetz looms over all violinists and I think this can be both a compliment and a curse. A compliment because just to be mentioned in the same breath as such an extraordinary artist and musician is praise indeed but a curse because any performer will wish to be considered on their own merit. There is an extra hurdle to consider here too; Heifetz’s recordings of both concertos are still readily available (RCA 09026 61752) and they remain the benchmark against which other performances have to be judged. I cannot think of many other performances over fifty years old which still can be considered the best regardless of any “historical” allowances. Because I do think it illuminating I have included here a table of relative timings. Of course timings are just one element of a performance but at least they are absolute and for these two concertos I do feel they also reflect the essential character of the performances to which they relate.

I. Moderato Nobile
II. Romance Andante
III. Allegro assai vivace

Normally I would consider such an exercise to be all but worthless but here I feel it highlights some interesting details. I should say all six of these performances of the Korngold are very fine - technically assured and with many musical insights. An instant obvious fact is that Heifetz is the quickest by some considerable margin and Trusler the slowest. Some reviewers consider Heifetz to be all technique and little emotion. Possibly elsewhere, but I have always believed this recording to be one of his most passionately ardent. Because of his extraordinary technique it does not sound fast regardless of what the stopwatch might say. Allied to that the close-miked sound and trademark fast intense vibrato make this a high-powered hyper-romantic reading.

Trusler completely reconceives the concerto. Take the very opening; Heifetz immediately playing to the hilt but Trusler with his immaculate lighter and more reflective tone (and all importantly obeying the dynamic direction of p) creates an atmosphere of nostalgic reflection that is wonderfully compelling. This for me is the key to Trusler’s interpretation - even down to the use of a variant of Korngold’s favourite “motif of the cheerful heart” - the concerto becomes a nostalgic reflection on better times past. Interesting to note that Korngold wrote of the reception to the premiere in 1947, “A success just as my best times in Vienna….” Not to imply for an instant that Trusler isn’t able to produce violinistic fireworks when they are required it just is that he does not choose to emphasise that aspect of the concerto. Tonally too he does not try to compete with Heifetz. Gil Shaham’s justly praised recording on DG with Previn and the LSO is quite magnificent with fabulously rich and polished playing and a sound that is closer to the older player’s. One aspect that no other performer achieves quite like Heifetz - and the reason why if forced I would have to stick with the original - is the miraculously flexible phrasing he employs. Korngold’s music is dominated by a vocal quality and the performance of his instrumental music needs to reflect that - Heifetz plays the first two movements almost as concert arias with extended recitatives; utterly unbeatable. Having been greatly impressed by the first two movements I was fractionally disappointed by the finale from Trusler. Technically it is superb but I find the contribution from the Dusseldorf orchestra to be relatively wan. Nothing is wrong but it lacks the muscular heft and vigour of the best performances. Also, the engineering is shown up to be somewhat synthetic with undue spotlighting of solo woodwinds at the expense of a well integrated orchestral sound. Curiously the solo violin is realistically mixed into the orchestra.

I. Allegro non troppo ma passionato
II. Lento Cantabile
III. Allegro Vivace

If the Korngold concerto can be characterised as essentially looking back nostalgically then the Rózsa is more forward looking. Not that it is “contemporary” but the abiding impression is of an athletic forward momentum. It is another cracking piece that deserves to be much more widely played and known. Again Trusler is lean and nimble and technically totally in control. However I feel that Heifetz’s wild gypsy fiddling is surely closer to the true heart of this work. The timings above are very revealing - a difference of 5 minutes in a 30 minute work is huge. I don’t have access to a score so I can’t be certain that no passages are cut (it does not sound like there are) so I’m assuming it really is just down to speed. Also, Heifetz’s Dallas orchestra (and here the rather harsh old mono recording almost adds to the sound-picture) seem more willing to take up the gauntlet the music throws down. In Dusseldorf the orchestral playing sounds efficient without being committed. The central movement is a Bartókian night-scene and here Trusler scores with elusive and spectral playing. But either side during the Hungarian Symphonic Dances that frame it (my description not Rózsa’s!) although it is really very very good it is not as good. Linking this back to one of the other violinists mentioned earlier, having been astounded by Pavel šporcl’s Gypsy Way album I can imagine him playing this concerto superbly. On the other hand I would love to hear Trusler’s Elgar which I imagine might be in the vein of my favourite performance by Hugh Bean.

The disc is completed by three utterly redundant versions of versions. Really what the point was in transcribing miniatures which were already transcriptions I have no idea. Again beautifully played but after the red meat of Rózsa and the high romance of Korngold they seem like a pointless mint at the end of a marvelous meal - you eat it but wonder why you bothered. All the more frustrating because there is other repertoire which could have enhanced the value and interest in this disc further. For interest of the other versions of the Korngold listed above; Juillet on Decca is probably the least compelling although interestingly coupled (as part of the Entartete series), Mathé on Dorian has a great coupling with Korngold’s Sinfonietta and is a beautifully controlled performance. The Hoelscher dates from the early 1970s before any real kind of Korngold rehabilitation and is a buried gem - committed and moving although lacking the last ounce of technical perfection that seems de rigueur these days - but I love it. Korngold, I guess, would just love the idea that his work was the focus of so much attention and high quality competition. If you need your recordings in modern digital sound then buy this - as a coupling it is hard to beat - otherwise seek out the masterly Heifetz, truly one of the great discs of the gramophone.

Nick Barnard 
Athletic forward momentum ... see Full Review 

Masterwork Index: Korngold Concerto



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