Trawling through the online catalogues I see Bernstein’s Serenade
has been lucky on record, with stellar performances from the likes of Itzhak Perlman and Anne-Sophie Mutter. The Bloch triptych is presented here in its later version for violin and orchestra – the original, for violin and piano, dates from 1923 – and that, too, seems to have attracted a number of first-rate fiddlers, including a very young Joshua Bell. The Israeli violinist Hagai Shaham has recorded the version for piano and violin, and it just so happens that his namesake Gil Shaham’s reading of the Barber concerto with André Previn and the LSO – DG 439 886-2 – is at or near the top of my list of recommendations for this delectable work.
The Ukrainian-born violinist Vadim Gluzman – he moved to Israel in 1990 – has already completed a number of discs for BIS, among them works by composers as diverse as Schnittke and Pärt, so he certainly doesn’t shrink from a challenge. As for the São Paulo orchestra under maestro Neschling, they first came to my attention with a scintillating disc of Tchaikovsky and Medtner piano concertos (BIS-SACD-1588). And even if that weren’t such a fine recording it would still be a must-have for lovers of this repertoire.
So, how does Gluzman acquit himself here? Bernstein’s Serenade,
for which the composer provided a detailed programme, is a musical response to the many aspects of love debated in Plato’s Symposium.
A daunting task for some, perhaps, but not for the bold Bernstein, who was never short of chutzpah.
Happily, this lithe and lyrical score receives a fine performance here. From the opening violin solo to ‘Phaedrus’ – a hymn to Eros – it’s clear that Gluzman possesses a firm and lovely tone, the orchestra responding sympathetically throughout. Indeed, those normally allergic to Lenny’s unique blend of naiveté and exhibitionism may be pleasantly surprised by the classical rigour – and vigour – of the writing here.
‘Aristophanes’ is especially beguiling, Gluzman spinning a shimmering web of sound above crisp orchestral pizzicati.
‘Eryximachus’ is more forthright – the percussion is very well caught here – the Adagio ramblings of ‘Agathon’ characterised by delicate, sustained playing from the soloist. Even in the tuttis Gluzman is easily heard, the SACD layer adding extra glow and ‘air’ to the sound. True, the Sala São Paulo may seem a little dry at times, but the recording has just enough warmth and detail to conjure up a believable concert balance. The start of ‘Socrates: Alcibiades’ brings to mind the sinewy sound-world of Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms.
The gentle dialogue between violin and cello that follows is especially affecting.
No question, Gluzman is more than just a virtuoso note-spinner; his phrasing is very natural, his tone invariably full and even. And while the detailed liner-notes cite Debussy and Richard Strauss as Bloch’s main influences, the sweetish harmonies of Baal Shem
remind me more of works by fellow émigré Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Paradoxically, Gluzman makes the music of Vidul (‘Contrition’) sound both sensuous and devotional with his rich, tremulous tone staying just this side of mawkishness. As for the orchestra – the brass and timps especially – they’re powerful and imperious in Nigun (‘Improvisation’) offering a clear-eyed foil to Gluzman’s more fanciful phrases.
Yes, one could argue that the soloist is more forwardly placed than he would be in the concert hall, but as I discovered with the Gil Shaham disc mentioned earlier – and that really does
sound larger than life – playing of such immediacy and refulgence seems entirely justified. Indeed, the concluding Simchas Torah (‘Rejoicing’) has a vibrant Technicolor blush that conductor and soloist exploit to the full.
Moving on to the Barber, Gluzman may seem more inward than Shaham at the start of the Allegro, but then the BIS balance is not nearly as exaggerated as DG’s. That said, Shaham and Previn strike sparks off each other with the LSO in effervescent form throughout. The Brazilians are no slouches either; the steady beat of the timps – beginning at 9:33 – is as atmospheric as one could hope for and Gluzman adds his own brand of quiet enchantment to the mix. As for the noble Andante = shades of the Adagio for Strings
– it’s even finer. The music emerges with a velvety, analogue-like warmth that is simply breathtaking. Not since BIS’s excellent Seascapes
– have I heard an orchestra recorded with such fidelity. And while Neschling certainly sets the dynamo spinning in the Presto, I really do prefer the added vigour and volatility of Shaham and Previn at this point.
This is a sterling effort, combining that rarest of commodities – thoughtful, intuitive virtuosity – with polished orchestral playing and exemplary recording. No doubt one will have favourite versions of each of these works, but if you want strong, persuasive performances of all three this is the disc to have.