Alban BERG (1885-1935) Violin Concerto (1935) [24:40]

Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971) Violin Concerto in D (1931) [20:18]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893) Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35 (1878) [33:50]
Arthur Grumiaux (violin)
Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam/Igor Markevitch (Berg) and Ernest Bour (Stravinsky) and Vienna Symphony Orchestra/Bogo Leskovic (Tchaikovsky)
rec. Vienna, November 1956 (Tchaikovsky) and Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, December 1966 (Stravinsky) and January 1967 (Berg)
DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 0481 [78:55]
When I was an “A”-level music student in the late sixties, Berg’s Violin Concerto was seen as an essential subject of study. Conscientious to the last, I decided to buy a record of it, and the choice seemed to turn between two which had been released within a month of each other. One was the marvellous version by Joseph Suk on Supraphon, coupled at the time with the Bach cantata quoted by Berg, and now available with two other concertos in Supraphon’s remarkable Ancerl Gold Edition. The other was this performance by Grumiaux, and since I found the Stravinsky coupling more appealing, that was the version I invested in.
The two twentieth-century concertos have already appeared on CD in the Philips Legendary Classics series. The Philips name and logo do not appear on this issue, sadly, but we do have an extra work, the Tchaikovsky, billed as a first international CD release. I’ll deal with that performance first. Grumiaux plays, as always, with impeccable technique and much bravura. His reading of the first movement cadenza is highly individual, and indeed his expressive manner brings with it a few surprises throughout the work. Most collectors will already have more than one performance of this concerto on their shelves, and many of these will feature rather more in the way of Russian passion than this one. I wouldn’t want to emphasise this too much, as Grumiaux is very satisfying. Even so, there are several points where he sounds less that completely comfortable. Perhaps he and the conductor, a name unknown to me, didn’t see eye to eye. The orchestra plays well enough, but there are brief moments of imprecise ensemble in both the first and last movements, and the accompaniment as a whole remains earthbound. The performance is far more than an interesting supplement to the other two concertos, however, and Grumiaux admirers such as I will be very happy that it has been made available. But many other performances are preferable as single-choice recommendations.
It is the other two concertos which make this disc indispensable . Stravinsky’s concerto is a masterpiece. There are four short movements, two fast ones enclosing two slow, both of which carry to title Aria and both of which contain passages of great beauty. It is one of his neo-classical works, firmly in D major, and with characteristic motor rhythms pervading the music, particularly the outer movements. I recently heard the finale described – I forget by whom – as “a riot”, and this seems fair. It’s hilarious at times. The scoring, for large orchestra, is typically idiosyncratic, being heavily biased towards the winds. I know of no more successful performance than this one. Grumiaux has the measure of the work, highly expressive yet cool in the two slow movements, brilliant and incisive in the rest. The orchestra, under Ernest Bour, plays superbly, with particularly honourable mention going to the trombones who contribute not a little to the general hilarity of the finale.
Back in my “A”-level days, critical faculties developing and so on, I heard someone describe Berg’s Concerto as “sick”. The idea was thus planted in my mind, and I held the same – demonstrably second-hand – view for many years thereafter. My feelings began to evolve at about the time I realised that we all have the perfect right to think what we want about a given work of art. So I still find that there is a richness, an over-ripe, charged atmosphere there which can seem at odds with the notion of a work in memory of a young girl. Berg’s way with the Bach quotation when it comes, too, the different harmonisations of the tune, rather add to this effect. But there are passages of quite astonishing beauty throughout the work, and its dramatic structure is most satisfying. Despite the fearsome technical challenges, it is decidedly not a romantic, virtuoso concerto, and though the player must inevitably demonstrate total mastery of these challenges, the solo instrument must not draw attention to itself in this way. I admire enormously the Suk performance mentioned above, and one by Frank Peter Zimmerman that I reviewed in a huge EMI box was only one of several more recent performances that I have found satisfying. But Grumiaux remains, in my view, the finest exponent of the work I have heard on record. He plays with quite extraordinary purity of tone, and his poise, sense of line and phrasing are unparalleled and totally at one with the spirit of the work. Not once does he overstep the line, so easy to do in this concerto, and allow the music to become lachrymose. In other words, this is the performance to convince listeners that Berg’s Violin Concerto is a serious musical and emotional document, and not “sick” at all. It’s a performance that should be on every serious collector’s shelves, and coupled as it is with an equally outstanding performance of the Stravinsky plus a respectable performance of the Tchaikovsky, all at an absurdly low price, this disc is absolutely unmissable.
William Hedley
An unmissable disc from a master violinist … see Full Review