Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Violin Concerto in D major Op.61 (1806) [25:04]
Violin Romance No.1 Op.40 in G major (ca.1802) [8:52]
Violin Romance No.2 Op.50 in F major (1805) [8:04]
Liza Ferschtman (violin)
The Netherlands Symphony Orchestra/Jan Willem de Vriend
rec. 10-12 February 2010 (Violin Concerto) and 30 June - 1 July 2010, Muziekcentrum Enschede, Netherlands.
CHALLENGE CLASSICS CC72384 [58:27]
If there was ever a musician with intelligence and integrity, Liza Ferschtman is that musician, so it was a delight to see her teamed up with another highly respected Dutch artist, Jan Willem de Vriend. Add a fine orchestra into the mix and put it all onto a state of the art SACD recording and I think we’re already into ‘treat’ territory before we’ve even started listening.
There are perhaps some aspects of this performance which won’t please everyone, so I’ll get those out of the way to start with. Jan Willem de Vriend is very much part of the ‘early music’ scene in The Netherlands, and he has introduced elements of period performance practice into The Netherlands Symphony Orchestra, including relatively hard-sticks for the timpani, period brass instruments, and a minimum of vibrato in the string sections. This is something which doesn’t bother me particularly, and I quite like the clean string sound this technique brings in this piece. Just have a listen to the Larghetto to gain an impression of how this works, allowing the music to speak for itself through phrasing and dynamics rather than wringing extra intensity out with the different sheen of a general vibrato-laden sound. There are arguments on both sides, and you may find the conjoining of a ‘modern’ sounding soloist with an ‘antique’ sounding orchestra either to be a source of troubling controversy, or something which generates fascinating contrasts. Some of this will depend on what you are already used to, but if you are prepared to listen with an open mind and take the qualities of this performance at face value then I’m convinced you’ll definitely be more in ‘treat’ than ‘torture’ territory. In general, the orchestra is just that bit more understated than on many other versions, but apart from that the differences are more subtle than radical. The basses are deep and full, the tuttis full-blooded, and with superb detail in the recording there is plenty of texture and timbre to get your teeth into.
The soloist is where it’s really at in this recording, and even a brief audition over my car stereo on the way back from another obscure gig had seasoned orchestral musicians exclaiming ‘wauw’ - which is Dutch for ‘wow’ - in the passenger seat. Liza Ferschtman has that purity of tone and absolute singing quality which you want in this piece, with lines glittering above the orchestra and each cadenza a sublime masterpiece. For cadenza spotters, that in the first movement is Beethoven’s own, transcribed from the piano concerto version of the piece by Wolfgang Schneiderhan; that in the third movement is by Fritz Kreisler. The high notes ring out with refined clarity, her phrasing is natural and inventive at the same time - a long pedigree as a chamber musician adding to that stable technical footing a degree of expressive flexibility which plays with and alongside the orchestra rather than over or against it. Have a listen to the interactions in the beginning of the final Rondo to get a flavour, but the entire piece has a sense of collaboration and amicable teamwork. This solo playing is both musically a kind of idealised perfection, but also has a potent communicative element: a human breath and warmth which teases and confides as well as transcending our own earth-bound artistic poverty. We are made to feel participants, and given a sense of aspiration as well as a jaw-dropping experience of the mystic and the magical - the super-human, from both player and composer.
My own affections for this piece are founded in the now rather elderly recording but still fresh sounding performance made with Isaac Stern and the New York Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein, available on the Sony label. I doubt many people rate this particular recording much these days, but I always rather liked Stern’s compact vibrato and ability to be both soulful and dramatic almost at the same time. My old 1950s DG LP of a sweetly expressive Wolfgang Schneiderhan with the Berlin Philharmoniker and Paul van Kempen is also a treasured old artefact, though the later recording with Eugen Jochum is generally preferred by connoisseurs. Ferschtman is entirely different to both of course, certainly more accurate than Stern in terms of intonation, but while her vibrato isn’t quite as steely-tight it most certainly is not slack or distracting in any way, very much an expressive cherry on top of the sound, rather than any kind of defining or distracting factor.
This is a very fine SACD recording, and, knowing the acoustic of the Muziekcentrum Enschede first hand is not a prerequisite for feeling as if you are ‘in the room’ while listening - in fact, if you know it too well you will know for certain you are not sitting in the front row staring at a wall; the front of the stage. There are many alternatives in this central pillar of the violin repertoire, but for me this Challenge Classics release is the whole package. It might have been nice to have one of Beethoven’s overtures to start the programme and fill out the timing a little, but the two Violin Romances are played with great affection, and all of their melodic charm is beautifully and sensitively brought forth on this highly desirable recording.