Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Violin Concerto in A minor, Op.53, B96/B108 (1879-82)* [30:45]
Legends, Op.59 (1881) [38:41]
Richard Tognetti (violin)*
Nordic Chamber Orchestra/Christian Lindberg
rec. January 2009, Tonhallen, Sundsvall, Sweden. DDD.
BIS BIS-CD-1708 [70:17]

Of Dvořák’s three concertos, for cello, piano and violin, the Cello Concerto has always been the most popular. It has had the most powerful advocacy, from the likes of Mstislav Rostropovich, who recorded it more than once - seven times, I think. Much as I love the Cello Concerto, however, I also have a great deal of time for the other two, the Violin Concerto especially.

When the Josef Suk/Karel Ancerl Supraphon recording appeared in the early 1960s, the work was a comparative rarity. The LP – a wonderful bargain for 17/6 (87p, but more like Ł18 in today’s values), in stereo, too, though with a rather crackly surface – very quickly won me over to the work and it has been one of my favourite concertos ever since. That performance remains my benchmark, in a rather dry recording, though much improved over the LP, on Supraphon Ancerl Gold SU36682. (Recording of the Month – see review.) Buy it on CD or as a download from emusic here.

Since then, it has been more frequently performed, with highly regarded versions from Perlman and Barenboim, Chang and Davis (both EMI), Vengerov and Masur (Warner), Little and Handley (CfP), Ehnes and Noseda (Chandos) and Mintz and Levine (DGG).

Two classic recordings, now available again as downloads in much improved sound, straddle the Suk/Ancerl recording. Johann Martzy recorded it in 1953 with the RIAS Orchestra and Ferenc Fricsay, a recording available as a download from Beulah Extra for Ł1.50. It’s an interesting historical document – actually it’s more than that because it made me realise that the concerto was never Suk’s sole domain, even though he is the great-grandson of its composer. The refurbished sound is dry but that doesn’t get in the way of a revelatory performance: 1BX77, 2BX77 and 3BX77 – here.

High Definition Tape Transfers (HDTT) offer a 24-bit/96kHz download of a mid-1960s DGG recording with Edith Peinemann and the Czech Philharmonic, conducted by Peter Maag and coupled with Ravel’s Tzigane, in amazingly good sound. It’s available here as an audio DVD, HQCD, CD or download. If you choose the download, try the HDTT sample files to make sure that your equipment can play 24/96 flac. Squeezebox will, though I imagine that it down-samples to 44.1kHz. I continue to be amazed how HDTT and Beulah seem able to get more out of these refurbished recordings than I remember having been there originally. I haven’t heard the Australian Eloquence transfer of this recording, coupled with the Serenade for Strings (476 7405) but MWI Classical Editor Rob Barnett has reviewed it here.

The soloist and conductor on the new recording bring with them high expectations. Richard Tognetti, violinist (and composer), has won golden opinions for his performances of the Beethoven Violin Sonatas with Angela Hewitt on Hyperion. Christian Lindberg is a genuine all-rounder: trombonist, composer and conductor – see Christopher Thomas’s review of the aptly named BIS DVD Christian Lindberg, The Total Musician (BIS-DVD-1678) and his 2008 interview with Lindberg. I certainly cannot argue against the claim that Tognetti achieves a golden tone from his multi-million-dollar violin, but there’s more to it than that.

Dvořák seems to hedge his bets concerning the tempo in all three movements by qualifying the allegros in the outer movements and the central adagio with ma non troppo. Not surprisingly, there is a good deal of latitude concerning the chosen tempo for each movement. In the first movement the new recording falls at the slow end of the spectrum – only Sarah Chang and Colin Davis on EMI, which I haven’t heard, take longer – with Martzy/Fricsay taking the movement much faster and Suk faster still. Peinemann/Maag and Perlman/Barenboim are only a little faster than Tognetti.

Tognetti’s overall time of 11:38 hides a multitude of varying tempi, with a great deal of rubato. Actually, what happens is not strictly rubato: the orchestra and conductor set a tempo at the outset, with a bold opening statement, and reassert it at various points throughout the movement, but the soloist seems to wish to pull back the tempo at every possible opportunity. This also happens to some extent in all the more recent recordings, especially that of Perlman and Barenboim, though not to the same marked extent as on the new BIS CD. Only Martzy and Suk seem exempt.

Something similar divides performances of the Brahms Violin Concerto, another Joachim-inspired work. Over the years the first movement seems to have become slower and slower until we have, in effect, almost two slow movements. Turn to Heifetz and Reiner and to Szeryng’s earlier performance with Reiner - both RCA – only the Heifetz is still available - and you hear the movement at a brisk tempo. Listen to Szeryng’s later performance and the vitality has gone. Heifetz and Reiner take just under 19 minutes, Szeryng and Reiner (from memory) much the same, but by the time of Szeryng’s version with Haitink the time had extended to 23 minutes. Kennedy and Tennstedt extend that to over 26 minutes.

You will either find what Tognetti does with the first movement of the Dvořák highly expressive and rhapsodic or find yourself becoming rather impatient with it, as I did. Suk and Martzy, who both adopt a fast tempo and mostly stick to it, are much more to my liking. It’s arguable that they ignore the ma non troppo part of the marking, but if anyone has the right to interpret his progenitor’s intentions, it must be Suk. He and Ancerl allow rather more rubato than Martzy and Fricsay, whose performance throughout the first movement is dazzling, but Suk never seems indulgent, as Tognetti frequently does, to me at least.

My initial high expectations of the new recording were boosted by the fact that I couldn’t fail to be aware that it had won the highest accolade in a recent issue of one music magazine, and in another as I was finalising this review. Though I had begun to warm a little more to it by the end of the first movement, I found myself in the same minority position as Jonathan Woolf when he reviewed Tognetti’s Bach Violin Concertos (ABC Classics 476 5691 – see review). David Barker, in a footnote to that review, also found himself in the same position. Are we all missing something? One online retailer recommends the new recording as creating a ‘warm fuzzy feeling’: is that what we should really expect from this work?

After that slow first movement, the slow movement of the new recording is the fastest that I have heard: over a minute faster than the nearest rival (Perlman/Barenboim) and almost 2˝ minutes faster than Suk/Ancerl. This looks much too fast on paper, but it works in practice and I never found that any part of the movement sounded rushed.

Tognetti and Lindberg also adopt a fast tempo for the finale, though one that is closer to their rivals – Perlman/Barenboim come close (just four seconds slower), with Martzy/Fricsay and Peinemann/Maag taking a minute longer and Suk/Ancerl falling between. As in the case of the slow movement, the tempo for the finale works well – it’s the lightness of touch rather than the tempo which stayed in my mind. If only the first movement had been less idiomatic, this could have been one of my top recommendations. Try a sample of that first movement for yourself, if you can – you may agree with those reviewers who rated it more highly.

The coupling for the new recording is the orchestral Legends, a cycle rarely encountered on disc. There’s a Mackerras recording, coupled with the Symphonic Variations and Scherzo Capriccioso (Supraphon SU35332) and an earlier BIS version conducted by Neeme Järvi (BIS-CD-436), while Naxos divide them as couplings between the recordings of the First and Second Symphonies under Stephen Gunzenhauser (8.550266, with 1-5, and 8.550267, with 6-10, respectively). It must be admitted that they are less attractive than the Slavonic Dances, of which they are sometimes reminiscent, but they deserve their outing; they receive sympathetic treatment here and they benefit from being offered in their entirety.

The sound on CD is good, though I was surprised to see that it was not released as a hybrid SACD, as much of BIS’s recent catalogue has been. I also downloaded the recording from – here – in lossless flac and was surprised to discover a slight but audible difference between the two, especially at the very opening, where the download seemed noticeably coarser. I’m so used to finding even 320kbps mp3 little, if at all, inferior, as in the case of the Nimbus complete Bach Organ Works and Hallé Wagner Götterdämmerung recordings (NI1721 – see review - and CDHLM7530 – see review – respectively), that I had confidently expected not to hear any difference. It’s not so great a problem that I would wish to put you off the download, however, if you wish to save a few pounds.

So it’s Suk and Ancerl to whom I shall be returning for this concerto. The rough-ish recording at the beginning soon opens out in the latest transcription and the two couplings, the Romance from the original LP and the Suk Fantasy make for a more appealing coupling than the Legends on the new CD. At 69 minutes, it offers just a few seconds less music than the new CD and it comes at a lower price (around Ł9.50 in the UK, or potentially as little as Ł1.25 as a download). The new BIS recording would offer a fine alternative in modern sound if you were prepared to overlook – or were not troubled by – my reservations about the first movement.

Brian Wilson

If – and only if – you warm to the idiomatic first movement more than I did, this could be your version of choice.