Samples & Downloads
Violin Concerto in A minor op.53 (1879, rev. 1880, 1882) (1) [35:15];
Romance in F minor op.11 (1873 – 1877) (2) [12:36]; Four Romantic
Pieces op.75 (1887) (3) [16:11]
Hrachya Avanesyan (violin)
Sinfonia Varsovia/Augustin Dumay (1, 2)
Marianna Shirinyan (piano) (3)
rec. 18-20 January 2011, Lutoslawski Hall, Warsaw (1, 2), 10 June
2011, Flagey, Studio 4, Brussels (3)
FUGA LIBERA FUG588 [62:15]
Though by logic a violin concerto by Dvorák should be up there with Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Sibelius, for most of its life it has hardly seemed up there even with Bruch. Those who do love it generally cherish it very dearly indeed, and I have been one of those since my teens.
Back then there weren’t all that many versions around and there was little doubt about which one to choose. Ricci/Sargent on Decca Ace of Diamonds and Milstein/Steinberg on World Record Club never had much allegiance. Another matter was Oistrakh on Melodiya if you could find it but generally, albeit with a fond glance in the direction of Martzy/Fricsay on Heliodor, the version was Suk/Ancerl on Supraphon.
The trouble was, once you had this performance inside your system, other versions had a way of making you realize why some people found the concerto less than inspired …
It’s some time since I heard any recording of the piece at all and, by and large, if you come to it for the first time through this one, I think you should love it. An interesting feature of this disc is that the conductor is a much more famous violinist than the violinist himself, but time may change that. Hrachya Avanesyan is Armenian but has been living in Belgium since he was sixteen and is a pupil of Dumay. As you can see from the cover scan, he scowls truculently at the world the way gifted young artists are apparently expected to these days, maybe defying us to notice that the upper reaches of the opening flourish are not 100% in tune, or challenging us to detect the heavy breathing that will be inescapable if you listen on headphones.
Dumay’s own contribution is fundamental, since his orchestra has those qualities of a living, breathing body, the presence or absence of which can make or mar any Dvorák performance. I found the first movement particularly successful, free-spirited yet shapely. There is no doubt of Avanesyan’s commitment and command right through. I wondered if he did not overdo the deep communing here and there in the second movement and the finale struck me as a shade too relaxed from all concerned, slackening unnecessarily in the Dumka-like episode.
Before going back to the Suk/Ancerl I sampled a very different version – the Chung/Muti on EMI. This is a more classical affair, with long lines and a sense of viewing the music from a certain distance. However, while Chung and Muti in one sense treat the work as a classical heir to the Beethoven-Mendelssohn-Brahms line, Muti is never to be underestimated. He sees the music as differentiated from the German-Austrian tradition, not in its basic language, but in its instrumental colouring. Abetted by some wonderful Philadelphia wind principals, especially the flute, he provides a colourful tapestry, not a bar of which could ever be mistaken for Brahms. So this performance carves out a space of its own in the discography. As with Avanesyan/Dumay, I wondered if Chung overdid the self-communing at times in the slow movement and, again, the finale is rather relaxed.
Turning now to Suk/Ancerl, I was reminded at first that this is an older recording, sometimes strident and congested – but I’m talking about the original LP. I soon got acclimatized, though. I noticed very early all sorts of little inflections – judiciously added portamenti for example – which show how completely Suk was identified with, and could illuminate from within, every nook and cranny of the music. He can express very deep feeling without getting slower, but I was particularly interested at the way the more brilliant passages get their full due. The music can pass in a moment from gentle communing with nature to joyous dance or high passion. In all this Ancerl is a perfect partner. Furthermore, the Czech Philharmonic still retained its special colouring. “Tangy” was the word that kept coming to my mind. The finale is not really faster than the others, but somehow the sense of shared rhythm gives it an exultant quality not quite matched by them.
Summing up, with Avanesyan and Chung you get the idea they are communing with themselves; Suk seems to commune with nature. There’s a pantheistic completeness to the Suk/Ancerl that sets it apart from even the finest alternatives. However, I’m happy to include Avanesyan/Dumay among these finest alternatives, and their romantic warmth and commitment should leave no newcomer in any doubt as to Dvorák’s inspiration in this concerto.
Suk/Ancerl also had the Romance. I didn’t listen again since I felt that Avanesyan’s strongly passionate interpretation carved out a space for itself. The Suk, as I recall, was more pastoral in feeling.
The first of the Four Romantic Pieces has always been popular with amateur violinists. The drawback with the other three is not their quality but their relative difficulty, with quite a lot of double-stopping. A problem for concert performances is that, after the sweetly lyrical first, the free-spirited, dancing second and the songlike third, we get, not a brilliant finale but an extended, powerful elegy in which Dvorák is at his most deeply felt, even tragic. The composer’s private grief is perhaps best appreciated in the privacy of your own listening-room. There’s quite a range of moods in these pieces which Avanesyan and the excellent pianist cover very well. Again, warmth and commitment are the keynote. There’s a Suk recording that I don’t know, but which is obviously important since it comes with the Sonata and the Sonatina.
So, while I cannot avoid reiterating that the Suk/Ancerl belongs among the truly great discs, if you fancy this trio of works in warmly romantic performances, or if you wish to follow from the beginning the career of a gifted violinist – he is 26 this year – you should be well satisfied. If enough people buy this disc, maybe Avanesyan will manage a bit of a smile on the cover of his next album.