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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Violin Concerto in E minor, op. 64 [25:45]
The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave), op. 26 [9:00]
Violin Concerto in D minor (1822) [21:35]
Alina Ibragimova (violin)
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Vladimir Jurowski
rec. 2-4 September 2011, Henry Wood Hall, London, England
HYPERION CDA67795 [56:22]
 
Performances of E Minor Concerto used for comparison:
- Viktoria Mullova, O Révolutionnaire et Romantique/John Eliot Gardiner (Philips)
- Janine Jansen, BBC SO/Roger Norrington (Proms performance)


Alina Ibragimova is one of my favorite performers, and I have purchased all but two of her recordings. I was mightily impressed by her insightful performances of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas (Hyperion CDA67691/2). Her live Wigmore Hall recordings of the Beethoven’s Violin Sonatas are among the finest performances ever recorded. I was excited at the prospect of hearing her newest recording, and, for the most part, I was not disappointed.
 
Here Ibragimova enters an overly crowded field of performances. Archivmusic.com currently lists 227 recordings of the E minor concerto, and 36 of the D minor concerto - which was a surprise to me, as I have never heard the work before this performance. It must be daunting for any violinist to issue a new recording of the E minor work, since it is one of the most popular and oft-performed concertos in the violin repertoire; those 200- plus recordings must present just about every interpretative possibility.
 
Ibragimova’s performance suggests she perceives Mendelssohn as a pure classicalist. She and conductor Jurowski downplays any aspect of the music that might suggest Mendelssohn harbored any Romantic inclinations. The performance uses very little rubato, and Jurowski urges the orchestra ever forward, thereby creating a somewhat metrical feeling to the phrasing. The orchestral accompaniment is absolutely spotless, yet never boring, as the use of period instruments reveals all kinds of interesting timbres and balances. The highlight of the movement comes around 2.40 where Ibragimova ushers in the second theme with a magical pianissimo, finally allowing herself a small amount of rubato - the effect is spell-binding. The mood is immediately dispelled by the flutes entry, which brings a return of the unrelenting forward momentum. I am not advocating a lack of pulse, or a performance that makes Mendelssohn sound like Mahler. However, the two performances listed for comparison both feature a greater degree of flexibility that gives Mendelssohn’s melodic writing a bit more room to breathe. Mullova, in particular, finds a fragility in the second subject that would melt the hardest heart, making Ibragimova’s rendering seem somewhat prosaic in comparison.
 
Nevertheless, Ibragimova’s playing is never less than beautiful, and in the second movement she allows herself greater interpretative freedom which creates an intense inwardness that fully captures the emotion of Mendelssohn’s writing.
 
The final movement brings a return of that propulsive driving energy, though it certainly works well, especially when played with the easygoing virtuosity displayed here. Yet I missed any sense of light-hearted wit; Ibragimova and Jurowski seem too serious to have fun! Jansen’s performance hits the ground running as well, but she and Norrington find a playful lightness that suggests everyone involved is having the time of their life. For this review I only listened to the Jansen performance, but I have watched it several times over the years, and I readily accept that the visual element of seeing Jansen’s animated interaction with the orchestra and Norrington perhaps contributes to the sense of fun I hear. So this is certainly a performance with a great deal to admire, but I often found myself wondering whether another conductor might draw out a more flexible and playful interpretation from Ibragimova.
 
The Hebrides Overture is dispatched with energy and precision, but is short on atmosphere, while the early Concerto in D minor, written when Mendelssohn was only thirteen, features the same interpretative profile found in the later concerto. Perhaps because I am unfamiliar with this work, I did not find this performance as inflexible or overly driven, and the second movement in particular features ravishing playing by soloist and orchestra.
 
The recording is up to Hyperion’s excellent standards - has this label ever released a poorly engineered recording? There is a thrilling immediacy to the sound, placing the listener front and center, just a few rows back from the performers. The orchestral work is wonderfully conveyed, allowing many wonderful colors to emerge during the performance, and the soloist is well balanced to the orchestra. The liner-notes, by R. Larry Todd, are interesting and informative, and the orchestra members are also listed in the booklet, something I have grown to appreciate.
 
This is a thoughtful and beautifully prepared performance that nevertheless fails to displace my favorite recordings. I have no doubt that Ibragimova’s interpretation will continue to develop and mature; she is certainly young enough that we may see another two or three recordings of this repertoire by her in the years to come. I am glad to have heard her interpretation, and you may feel differently about her concept of the E minor concerto than I do. Rarely will you hear it played more beautifully than it is here.
 
David A. McConnell 

Masterwork Index: Concerto in E minor