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Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
Violin Concerto No. 1 Op. 35 (1916) [26:12]
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841 - 1904)
Romance in F Minor Op. 11 (1873-79) [11:44]
Violin Concerto in A Minor, Op. 53 (1884) [33:37]
Arabella Steinbacher (violin)
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin/Marek Janowski
rec. May 2009, Haus des Rundfunks, Berlin

Experience Classicsonline

Arabella Steinbacher has previously released a number of recordings on the Orfeo label, with both Shostakovich concertos, and those by Berg, Beethoven, Khatchaturian and Milhaud already under her belt. She now appears on the SACD specialist Pentatone label, perhaps taking over the baton from Julia Fischer after her move to Decca.

I do love a good violin concerto disc, and was looking forward to this rather intriguing programme - mixing the highly charged and heavily scented romanticism of Szymanowski with the rugged open spaces of Dvořák. While it does make for a good technical listen in sound-engineering terms, I’m afraid it doesn’t quite make it into the ‘great recordings’ category as a set of performances.

My reference for the Szymanowski Violin Concerto No. 1 Op. 35 is that with Thomas Zehetmair with Sir Simon Rattle and the CBSO on EMI 5 55607 2. Rattle may not be all things to all people, but I do feel he gets Szymanowski right most of the time, and his Stabat Mater recording on the same label is the best and most beautiful I know. At once, the differences are clear. Rattle’s Birmingham forces fill the opening with restless energy and expectancy, the instruments of the orchestra colouring and conversing, laying fertile ground for the violin solo to tell its mysterious story of passion and lament. I’m afraid we don’t get much of this kind of thing from Janowski’s Berlin Radio orchestra. Everything is competently played, but the landscape is neon-lit and lacking in atmosphere. Comparing the orchestral string sound between the two, it seems as hardly any attention has been paid to creating that lushness of texture which this music demands. The same goes for when things liven up. Rattle teases, unleashing the climaxes with inflections of delay and rubato, turning the music into an organic, living thing. Janowski is dynamic, sometimes, but far too mechanical, lacking in pace and energy where the music attacks and drives, dissipating what little tension there is by dragging from an already slower base tempo in the all important opening Vivace assai.

Arabella Steinbacher is a good violinist, but Zehetmair shows us what’s what in the cadenza for this concerto. His violin crackles and sparkles with extremes of range and urgent dynamic where Steinbacher’s explores without quite finding the nugget, pure and sweet though her high tones are. The Wagnerian ‘big tune’ which launches us into the finale is a breathtaking ride on Rattle’s magnificent flying machine. I’m afraid Janowski’s looms out of the fog and retreats rather ingloriously, the rather fussily over-prominent piano unfortunately helping to kill the atmosphere rather than adding fizz to the general soundscape. If you are a fan of the dark romance of 1916 the choice is that between Szymanowski’s story being told to you by an ancient mariner in a candle-lit, darkly oak-panelled snug, or by the man behind the counter in the snack-bar next door with the white formica surfaces.

On to Dvořák’s Violin Concerto in A Minor, Op. 53, a piece with plenty of world class recordings in the catalogue. Aside from this release’s SACD sonic credentials, it is hard to find a reason for giving it a recommendation over Maxim Vengerov and Kurt Masur on Teldec, or another competitive young female in Sarah Chang, whose recording on EMI with Sir Colin Davis also has a fine performance of the A major Piano Quintet. As with the Szymanowski, this performance is more workmanlike than inspirational. All the notes are in the right place, but there’s not a great deal else going on behind them. As with the other concerto on this disc, the energy and urgency in the outer movements is never given much chance to take hold, as if Dvořák’s ma non troppo marking for each is taken as being the principal guide: ‘not too much, someone might get hurt...’ With this in mind, one would hope at least that the Adagio ma non troppo would avoid becoming too sentimental, but with Steinbacher sliding between the notes once or twice too often for my taste even this aim is rather coyly scuppered. The Finale - Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo is missing almost all of its dance-like movement in this performance, and as a result most of its joy. Leaden and mechanical are the two words which sum it up, and I’m sorry to have had to use them. Dvořák’s Romance Op.11 is a nice enough filler, but even were this to be a world-beating performance it would be too little too late. In the end it sounds like what it is; a filler, pleasant but not especially memorable.

As per usual, Pentatone have created a fine, natural sound for the orchestra. The solo violin is fairly forward but not painfully so, and the moments where the soloist mixes into and melts into the orchestral sound are well enough balanced in the Szymanowski. Taken in isolation, this is a disc which probably won’t offend your sensibilities, and fans of Arabella Steinbacher will no doubt appreciate being able to hear her in surround-sound. There is, however, so much more in this music than this release offers, and it would be disingenuous of me to praise it over so many other, more inspired recordings.

Dominy Clements






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