Sergei LYAPUNOV (1859-1924)
Violin Concerto, Op. 61 (1915, rev. 1921) [22:59]
Symphony No. 1 in B minor, Op. 12 (1887) [41:07]
Maxim Fedotov (violin)
Russian Philharmonic Orchestra/Dmitry Yablonsky
rec. 27-30 October 2007, Studio 5, Russian State TV and Radio Company KULTURA, Moscow
[superbudget] [download]
NAXOS DIGITAL 8.570462 [64:06]
Sergei Lyapunov’s Violin Concerto is a real gem, and I say this as a skeptic of obscure romantic concertos. A few years ago I went through a major “phase” of listening with great intensity to forgotten music from the 1800s: the violin concertos of Wieniawski, Vieuxtemps, Coleridge-Taylor, Atterberg, Berwald, Hubay; the piano concertos of Anton Rubinstein, Scharwenka, Moszkowski, Ries. After a few years of this, the pendulum has swung back again and I have returned to Tchaikovsky, Grieg, Brahms, Dvořák, Shostakovich, and Beethoven for my concerto fixes. I still love Wieniawski’s flawless Second Concerto, and the piano concerto by Eyvind Alnæs, but too often now obscure works make me think, “That’s why I’ve never heard of it.”
Not the Lyapunov Violin Concerto. This really is something else: a twenty-three-minute, one-movement work with a gorgeous solo part, big tunes, high energy, emotional Russian-romantic sweep, and a simply terrific cadenza. Imagine a Borodin violin concerto, or Max Bruch as a Muscovite, and you’ll have the idea. The violin enters immediately with the intriguingly moody main tune, Maxim Fedotov’s playing rich and boldly romantic; the major-key second subject is just as lovely, and reminds me of Brahms. Fedotov gets more opportunity to show off his considerable chops and delicious tone as the concerto moves into a slower section of lyrical tune-weaving; I really savor the interplay between violin, flute and harp after 9:36. Then we have a return to the main material and, before the exhilarating finish, a challenging cadenza with adventurous harmonics and double-stops.
This concerto has everything: high drama, gorgeous love music (14:40), a playful scherzo section, and a keen sense of just how beautiful an instrument the violin can be. This is now my favorite work by Sergei Lyapunov, and I could easily rank it alongside the likes of Vieuxtemps’ Fifth or the concertos of Wieniawski and Glazunov. It’s easy to imagine a performance in which the violin is miked more realistically, or in which the various sections of the work fit together more coherently. But this is - incredibly! - the only readily available recording of the concerto, Maxim Fedotov sounds like he is having the time of his life, and until Gil Shaham tackles the piece you simply need to hear this.
The First Symphony, written in 1887, I got to know in Evgeny Svetlanov’s performance from the Anthology of Russian Symphony Music. This symphony predates the concerto by nearly three decades, lacks its conciseness, but has the classic Russian romantic form: a short horn call at the opening provides the theme for the dramatic first movement, drama gives way to a lovely slow movement, and folk elements drive the light scherzo and blazingly triumphant finale. The Svetlanov recording was a load of fun, as all his recordings are; it’s a bit fast but you listen to Svetlanov for the exhilaration, not the subtlety.
Dmitry Yablonsky has nearly as good an orchestra, and just as idiomatically Russian (the French horn even wobbles a bit), in better sound and with more prominent lower brass. He also has a more moderate tempo in the outer movements, which benefits the work in places like the introduction and the biggest climaxes, which are a blur - albeit a thrilling, hair-raising blur - under Svetlanov. But in the first movement’s second subject (beautifully delivered by the clarinetist) I did wish Yablonsky would press forward more forcefully; especially around 5:00 and again before the coda, the slower, quieter music really does lose momentum. This performance of the first movement sounds like a local train making several stops; Svetlanov, for better and for worse, is the express.
Yablonsky does take the slow movement more quickly than his competition, partly to mask the thinness of the Russian Philharmonic violins but partly because the music really does sound good this way. It has a lovely sense of flow and good cheer, and the climax is utterly lovely. The woodwinds get a work-out in the scherzo, which surprisingly has an almost Mendelssohnian lightness, if Mendelssohn had studied with Glinka. The finale leads to a satisfying conclusion, even if I started missing Svetlanov again by the slightly underwhelming coda.
All this is captured in what seems to be good sound - my headphones have broken and I am using a cheap old pair, but did not hear anything worth complaining about. One might prefer Svetlanov in the outer movements of this symphony, but Dmitry Yablonsky and the Russian Philharmonic have nothing to be ashamed of here, a few great solos to applaud themselves for, and a lovely slow movement to savor. Besides, unless you have a hard-to-find old disc featuring soloist Yulian Sitkovetsky, this is your only chance to hear the superb violin concerto. Fans of the Russian romantics, and lovers of great violin music, should not hesitate.
As a part of the Naxos Digital imprint, this album is currently only available for download at the website Classicsonline, where it sells for rather less than the price of a physical compact disc. Naxos informs me that a standard CD will be issued in January 2011.
Brian Reinhart 

A very Russian symphony, but the concerto is the star