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Joseph JOACHIM (1831-1907)
Violin Concerto in G minor Op.3 (1850-1852) [20:07]
Violin Concerto in D minor Op.11 “In the Hungarian Style” (1857) [45:37]
Suyoen Kim (violin)
Staatsapelle Weimar/Michael Halász
rec. CCN Weimarhalle, Weimar, Germany, 18-22 February 2008
NAXOS 8.570991 [65:57] 

Experience Classicsonline

Until relatively recently the only compositional way in which you might have known the name of Joseph Joachim was as the creator of cadenzas for the Beethoven and Brahms Violin Concertos. However, recent years have seen a modest reappraisal of his work as a composer of major orchestral works. This disc is part of the Naxos ongoing investigation of 19th Century Violinist/Composers - I’ll get my grouch out of the way now; please no more conjectural composer paintings on the covers, they look as I’m sure they were - cheap! Thank goodness the rest of the content of the disc is so superior to its cover!

Joachim’s historical legacy is as one of the great violinists of the 19th Century. He influenced and helped composers such as Brahms directly but was also responsible through his work as an administrator and chamber musician for the promotion of a formidable array of music from Handel oratorios to (then) contemporary works. The main work for consideration here is Joachim’s Violin Concerto in the Hungarian Style Op.11. Many collectors, like myself, will have first encountered this work through the trail-blazing performance of Aaron Rosand on Vox Turnabout. This recording is still available as part of an absurdly cheap 2 disc set (CDX 5102) and I have to say I have a not totally objective attachment to it. Rosand was the ideal player to revive these forgotten concertos in the 1970s with a musically outsize personality willing to take outrageous risks with music that sometimes needs all the help it can get. However, there is no getting around the fact that he was often hampered by recordings and orchestras that were often second rate at best. On that basis alone the current violinist Suyoen Kim is far better served with the superb Staatskapelle Weimar as team-mates and Naxos furnishing discreetly superior engineering and production. But, and for me it is a big but, I would happily trade that extra technical prowess - and yes Kim is a cleaner leaner player than Rosand - for those bravura moments of pure personality that Rosand delivers. However, in these days of urtext and textual fidelity Rosand commits the sin of all sins - he cuts, and savagely at that. In an interview, Rosand states “It's too repetitious. I think I made some judicious cuts in that thing. Because the whole thing doesn't hang together. It has wonderful thematic material but when you rehash it fifteen times in the same movement it just gets boring.” Now normally I would be a strict adherent to the “play it just as the composer wrote it” school of reasoning. However, I have to admit that I think Rosand has a point. Uncut, the first movement alone runs to over twenty-six minutes which makes it longer than the Korngold Concerto complete and longer as a first movement than any of the great concertos by Brahms, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky or Sibelius!

So does its musical material sustain such an extended span? I would have to say not. To be brutally honest the mind does wander. Part of this is because the melodic material is good without being exceptionally memorable but the main problem lies in the fact that Joachim’s handling of the material is academically predictable for much of the time. Interestingly, even his writing of the solo part feels like it is more sensible than sensational. There is a sense that he is seeking to write at the limit but within the bounds of 19th Century virtuosity, not for him the questing “unknown regions” of a Sarasate or an YsaŸe. Kim is not the first violinist to tackle this Everest of the uncut concerto. From memory, Elmar Oliveira on IMG was the first - clocking a capricious twenty-four minutes for the first movement - coupling the Concerto with a pair of Joachim concert overtures. He was followed by Rachel Barton in a Grammy-nominated recording in 2003 coupled with the Brahms that had the critics drooling over the Joachim as a piece far more than I do; I have not heard this version. More recently Christian Tetzlaff on Virgin (also coupled with the Brahms) garnered very positive reviews. So why does my attention wander when others clearly does not? In direct comparison to both Rosand and Oliveira Kim lacks real gypsy fire in her belly. Likewise, for all my admiration of the Weimar Staatskapelle their extended orchestral tutti doesn’t have the dark-toned menace of their LPO counterparts on IMG. That being said I like the natural engineering of the Naxos disc very much. They have placed Kim realistically in the sound-picture and the orchestra produce a marvellous sonority. Rosand’s Luxembourg orchestra is really not in the running at all but I would still urge collectors to seek out his double-disc set for the sheer personality of his playing. Given that conductor Michael Halász is Hungarian I am a little surprised that he did not drive the tempi on and get more of a gypsy snap from his orchestra. I have enjoyed his work greatly elsewhere but this recording feels a little bland compared to his best lacking the fantasy this work ultimately needs to sound its best.

Because of the lyrical emphasis in this performance the second movement Romanze is more successful to my ears. Certainly Kim scores over Oliveira here both in the singing beauty of her tone and that she now takes two minutes less than Oliveira! However, Oliveira does give greater freedom to the recitative-like passages and that word fantasy springs to mind again so honours are more evenly divided. But come the finale my overall preference for Oliveira in the complete version of the concerto is reaffirmed. And it does comes down to his willingness to dig in to his violin sacrificing the last ounce of purity of tone in return for character. Kim remains totally in control throughout which I find ultimately a little dull - how ungrateful I sound! This is the movement from which the whole concerto derives its Hungarian title being marked alla zingara and it needs a flashing attack to work best. Undoubtedly it is a concerto worth hearing but I cannot help feeling its relative obscurity is about right.

The coupling here is both apt and interesting - Joachim’s early Op.3 concerto dedicated to Liszt. Presumably that is why Joachim favoured the one-movement format. Keith Anderson’s typically informative notes relate this as Joachim’s wish to try and find a musical middle ground between the programme music of Liszt and the poetic music of Schumann. As a young man in his early twenties it is an assured but ultimately rather anonymous piece of writing. Again, I had the abiding impression of a composer writing within the boundaries of his time rather than trying to break them. Well performed again by Kim, although I have no versions to compare it to, I have to say that thematically it is one of those works that slips from the memory rather soon after it has been heard. Three cheers for Naxos and their continuing exploration of the bye-ways of musical repertoire and a delight as ever to hear the Weimar orchestra. Huge credit to the soloist for the performing of such mammoth and demanding works with such technical aplomb but not a compulsory purchase disc unless the forgotten reaches of 19th Century violin repertoire weave a particular spell for you.

Nick Barnard 



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