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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Violin Concerto No. 2 in B minor, Sz. 112 (1937-38) [40:22]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Violin Concerto No.1 in A minor, Op. 77 (99) (1947-48) [37:49]
Yossif Ivanov (violin)
Royal Flemish Philharmonic/Pinchas Steinberg
rec. Concertgebouw, Brugge, Belgium, July 2008. DDD
Experience Classicsonline

Fabulous fiddling and wonderful sound! What’s missing? It would be too uncharitable to say that only the music is lacking, but there is I’m afraid some truth to that. As I listened to these staples of the violin concerto repertoire, my mind was concentrating on Ivanov’s gleaming tone and tremendous technique. On first hearing, I thought there might be something very worthwhile here that would challenge the competition. However, the second time around - or to tell the truth before I finished my initial audition - I knew that the competition need not fear the newcomer.

Yossif Ivanov is a young Belgian artist of Bulgarian parentage whose interpretations will probably deepen with time, but for now he would be advised to stick with works that need more exposure than these two popular twentieth-century concertos. I’m sure that if you heard these performances, especially the Shostakovich, at a live concert, you would come away being very impressed with his talent. But, should these performances be preserved for posterity? 

In the Bartók the tempi are part of the problem, but they far from tell the whole story. I compared this with five other recordings of the concerto. While it is true that Ivanov’s is the slowest of the lot, this was so much a problem with the outer movements. However, he over milks the beautiful melody at the beginning of the slow movement and applies portamento very thickly here, making one a bit seasick. The timing for this movement is an incredible 10:38, while the others I compared varied from 9:18 (Mullova) to 9:59 (Mutter and Tetzlaff). It may not seem like that much, but it is definitely noticeable—especially as their use of portamento is much subtler. In the famous passage in the first movement (at 12:46-13:05 in this recording) where Bartók has the violinist playing quarter tones that give the music a wonderfully queasy feeling, Ivanov seems to be playing half-steps instead. These are two of the details, more than minor irritants that do not wear well on repetition. In the larger scheme, the recording places the violin upfront as is often the case with violin concertos. But here the orchestra, which plays very well, seems to be relegated to a position of accompaniment rather than being a true partner. Again comparison with other recordings will bear this out. For a recommendation of the standard version of this work, I would suggest either Mutter/Ozawa (DG) or Chung/Rattle (EMI). For the more adventurous the original version of the concerto with its brass fanfares at the conclusion - rather than the solo violin that Bartók substituted on violinist Zoltŕn Szekély’s advice - either Tetzlaff/Gielen (EMI/Virgin) or Mullova/Salonen (Philips) is recommended. Any of these will satisfy more than this new one. 

The Shostakovich left a better impression with me. Ivanov seems much more suited to its emotionalism than he does to the Bartók idiom. Here his tempi seem to be normal, too. In fact he is nearly two minutes quicker than my current benchmark, Vengerov/Rostropovich (Warner/Teldec). The first three movements are slightly faster than Vengerov’s with only the finale being slightly slower. I like the way he dances in the second movement Scherzo. Still, in direct comparison with Vengerov, Ivanov comes across as somewhat superficial. This is due in some degree to their respective partnerships. Vengerov and Rostropovich with the London Symphony perform as one, finding a real depth of emotion in the music. Certainly the closer, less integrated recording of Ivanov’s violin exacerbates one’s impression of his interpretation. Steinberg and the Flemish orchestra accompany very well, but without the character and identification with the music that comes naturally to Rostropovich. 

Yossif Ivanov has the sound and technique to be a first-class violinist and musician. Only time will tell if he fulfills the promise he has demonstrated here. For now, I would stick with one of the recommendations above, among others, for these concertos and hope that Ivanov in the future will choose repertoire where competition is not so keen.

Leslie Wright


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