Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47 (1905) [32:07]
Humoresque No. 1 in D minor, Op. 87, No. 1 (1917) [3:40]
Humoresque No. 2 in D major, Op. 87, No. 2 (1917) [2:08]
Humoresque No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 89, No. 3 (1917) [3:48]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Violin Concerto. No. 1 in D major, Op. 19 (1917) [22 :08]
Vilde Frang (violin)
WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln/Thomas Søndergård
rec. Rhein-Sieg-Halle, Siegburg, Germany, 11-13 March 2009. DDD
EMI CLASSICS 6 84413 2 [63:56]

Sibelius’s concerto steals in on the listener here, the soloist’s disembodied tone at the outset only gradually opening out to something close to what the score demands. It’s a surprising but totally convincing effect, and a sign of what is to come. This is in fact a highly individual reading, and time and again I found myself hearing details as if for the first time. The thought that I have been enjoying and studying this work for over thirty years, yet the soloist is only in her very early twenties is a sobering one. There are moments of near-miraculous stillness here in the first movement, and these too seem totally right, making one wonder why one has never heard them played like that before. The more muscular passages, on the other hand, are dispatched with remarkable power and conviction. The slow movement is marvellously done, the almost unbearable erotic charge of the second big climax equalled only on disc, in my experience, by Cho-Liang Lin in 1987. Frang really tucks into the opening of the finale, and the rest of the movement is dispatched with stunning virtuosity. The coda is as thrilling as I have ever heard it.

Several very fine recorded performances of this glorious work have appeared recently. I was particularly impressed by those from Hilary Hahn (sadly not reviewed here – DG 000289 477 7346 7, March 2008) and Lisa Batiashvili (Sony), both, by the way, indispensable also because of their couplings, Schoenberg in the former case, Magnus Lindberg in the latter. Of less recent performances I also like very much that by Tasmin Little and Vernon Handley, generously coupled with the Brahms concerto and last seen on Classics for Pleasure (at first EMI Eminence in 1993 CD-EMX 2203).

The new performance now joins this very select group, its very individual character perhaps just ensuring a top place alongside Lin, this last a more conventional performance, but one in a class of its own.

Vilde Frang is Norwegian, she was born in 1986, and this is her first disc. Her studies are detailed in the booklet, and no doubt the names of her teachers will mean more to violin specialists than they do to me. Her rather elfin good looks are not ignored by the EMI designers, though I have seen much more brazen promotion than this, and in any event she is certainly much easier on the eye than Sibelius himself who looks very out of sorts in his photograph. A picture of Thomas Søndergård, or at least some information about him, would have been welcome though, as his name was new to me, and he and his superb orchestra accompany the young soloist with tact and skill, whilst not failing to provide playing of great character in purely orchestral passages. The booklet is graced with an essay by David Gutman fine enough to make one wish he had been allowed a little more space.

I don’t know to what extent Frang was allowed free choice of programme, but in any event it is commendable that her debut recording should feature the first concerto of Prokofiev, rather than the rather more commonly encountered second – which is probably an easier listen – or indeed any other better-known concerto. The opening puts one in mind of the Sibelius, a long melody from the soloist over tremolando strings. This melody is sweetly played with rich, full tone, romantic, as it should be, but not at all cloying, and the high violin tracery which accompanies its return at the end of the movement in exquisitely done. In other passages Frang demonstrates her ability to project forthright music whilst staying well on the right side of harshness. This may well be a conscious decision, as this is a reading which emphasises the concerto’s misty, mysterious side over its more acerbic elements, and none the worse for that, in my view. This is not to say that the harsher side of things is neglected, however, as can readily be heard in the short central movement. But how subtly the soloist characterises the different elements of this movement, making of it so much more than a simple display of violin pyrotechnics. Strong characterisation continues into the finale which begins with another long melody over a ticking accompaniment, most winningly played. The twittering return of the work’s opening theme in the final pages might almost be birdsong. My favourite version of this concerto has long been that from 1975 by Kyung-Wha Chung, with Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra on Decca (last seen in Previn - A Celebration on DG 477 8114). Her view of the work is similar to Frang’s, and those who seek something more muscular might prefer Vengerov (Teldec 4509-92256) amongst others. But it is a view I find very satisfying, and henceforth I will be choosing Frang as often as I choose Chung when I want to hear this work.

The programme is completed by three of the six pieces for violin and orchestra that Sibelius composed in 1917 under the title Humoresque. David Gutman refers to these pieces as “shafts of pale Northern sunlight” in which “a quirky freshness subverts the salon element”. I can do no better than to add that this is music of real substance, albeit within a modest time span, and played here with delicious aplomb, it makes for a satisfying close to this superb disc.

William Hedley

see also review by Rob Barnett (March '10 Recording of the Month)