Antonín DVORÁK (1841-1904)
Violin Concerto in A minor Op.53 (1879) [32:58]
George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
An American in Paris (1928) [19:16]
Liza Ferschtman (violin)
Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra Amsterdam/Mario Venzago
rec. 20-22 April 2011, Beurs van Berlage, Amsterdam, Netherlands

If George Gershwin had written a piece called A Bohemian in New York then there might have been some logic to this coupling, but nothing in the booklet notes even attempts to link these two works. Never mind. Not quite as popular as the Cello Concerto, Dvorák’s Violin Concerto is still a work with plenty of competitive recordings around. Names which spring to mind are Tasmin Little with her impressive and quite poetic recording amongst a feast of concertos on a 2CD EMI set with the Bruch Concerto No. 1, Scottish Fantasy, and Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole. Also on EMI is Kyung-Wha Chung with Riccardo Muti which is a tad heavier than Little but in that respect gaining in Slavic weight and passion, and nicely paired with Bartók’s Rhapsodies 1 and 2. Paired with Dvorák’s Piano Concerto, James Ehnes with his fine high tones soaring above the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in good form on the Chandos label is also not to be ignored. In other words, plenty of choice and less loopy programming is to be had, but having marvelled at Liza Ferschtman’s Beethoven (see review) there was nothing for it but to Czech out her Dvorák, ahem.

This is indeed a fine recording, but the Beurs van Berlage acoustic does render the Netherlands Philharmonic into something a little spongy and generalised. The Muti/Philadelphia combination certainly has more impact, and BBC/Noseda greater detail. When the strings and timpani come together on this Dutch recording there’s lots of growling, and everything orchestral just seems a little too far away to be really distinct. That said, the proportion between the soloist isn’t too unnatural sounding, with Ferschtman’s violin set realistically in the acoustic and not too forward for comfort. Indeed, it is for her playing that you will want this recording, and she doesn’t disappoint. Tender phrasing and drama both intensely quiet and lyrical as well as in full flight are all features of a fine performance. The witty little touches in the first movement about 7 minutes in are one of many points of nice detail, with good contrast of bowing weight allowing the music a certain amount of freedom in a piece which is pretty relentless for the soloist. There is a nice blend of lines at the beginning of the Adagio ma non troppo, though again it might have been nicer to hear the colours of the woodwinds more distinctly. Ferschtman’s double-stopping is terrific, easily outplaying the horns after about 3 minutes, but Tasmin Little is the player who holds my interest more in this movement, expressing greater levels of poetic charm where Ferschtman is more objective. The sprightly Finale is neat and tidy here rather than something which makes you want to leap out of your chair and do a joyful jig.

An American in Paris played by the Victor Symphony Orchestra and conducted by George Gershwin in 1929 is a fine romp, full of humour, imaginative pictorial playing and ribald oafishness to go along with the urbane good humour and Milhaud-esque contrasts, the whole thing coming in at a total timing of 15:46. Later recordings generally take a broader view of the work, and a recording which has been reliably enjoyable over the years is one whose character belies the apparently straight-laced names of the performers, the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Steuart Bedford on the Classics for Pleasure label. Juicy low tuba parps and plenty of verve to go along with a rather resonant acoustic picture make this just one of many fine recordings with which the Netherlands Philharmonic has to compete.

They do well enough, but the generalised orchestral sound is again something which prevents instant involvement. These are excellent players and everyone gets stuck in, but this ain’t an all-out winner. The character of the performance is just that, a performance which you would enjoy greatly in the concert hall, but as a recording it doesn’t really fire the imagination – the swagger isn’t that of a distinct personality and the car horns are percussion-section-professional rather than street-fright-frenzy. The nocturne in the seventh minute does have a nice atmosphere, and there is a fine Damon Runyon loose-boned slouch to the big theme around 8 minutes in. This is the kind of recording one can warm to because of the qualities in the music, but in the end it doesn’t quite hack it when compared to Leonard Bernstein’s 1960 recording with the Colombia Symphony Orchestra for instance, or even a bargain choice of James Judd with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra on the Naxos label, which just seems to hang together that much more interestingly, daring to swoop and dive in genuine Hollywood style rather than posting each section up like a fridge magnet vignette.

SACD sonics may tempt you with this CD, but while it helps there is no escaping the vague mismatch between the NPO’s massed forces and an empty Beurs van Berlage Yakult Zaal. There’s nothing really bad about any of this release and I’ve been happy to make its acquaintance. The problem is it has had the effect of reminding how good some of my old favourites are rather than firing me with enthusiasm for the artefact itself, rich in superb individual qualities as it is.

Dominy Clements

Odd bedfellows.