One of the works to have emerged from Britten's centenary celebrations with its reputation deservedly strengthened is the Violin Concerto Op.15 recorded here. With the exception of the Op.10 Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge
, all of the works that define Britten's enduring legacy lie in the future and it is with this concerto that the range and nature of his genius is compellingly revealed. What is particularly pleasing about the attention given to this concerto on disc in recent times is that it has become a truly international work with great players from around the world willing to address its many technical and musical challenges. With players of the stature of James Ehnes, Tasmin Little and Gil Shaham amongst the recent performers it is especially pleasing to be able to welcome a young performer such as Linus Roth to the growing list. He is a player I have not encountered before and as with so many, his technical skill is beyond reproach.
I have a sneaking suspicion that the Weinberg concerto was the starting point for this disc with the Britten as a filler. One of the benefits for the listener when there is a wide range of interpretations available is that it becomes easier to get a sense of what approach reveals most. For me, despite the often ferocious youthful energy of the Britten concerto, the genius resides in the more elusive and mercurial quality of the first movement and the final extraordinary passacaglia. After an appealingly pensive opening, I find Roth's performance of the first movement rather too literal and lacking in the fantasy others find. The musical material builds from a morse code-like rocking figure on the timpani that opens the work. By the midpoint of the movement the soloist is left obsessing over this figuration like some musical terrier while the orchestra serenely plays a lilting lyrical passage - the orchestral melody has a flavour of Walton at his most Mediterranean. Via Roth's website I was interested to read a review [www.theartsdesk.com] that highlights this as "extraordinary here, Roth and Kütson making time stand still." Prior to reading that opinion I had noted the same passage as having become becalmed and directionless. Worth noting that the Challenge Classics SA-CD engineering - even when listened to as here in standard stereo - is very fine and the excellent Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin play with considerable tonal beauty. They have a weight of sound that is very characterful and attractive and one not necessarily associated with Britten. The problem I have lies not with the orchestra but with the failure of Roth and conductor Mihkel Kütson to reflect the capricious quirky imagination that fills the score. Too often Roth plays extended passages with a linear detached technical brilliance - and it is very brilliant - but not a lot else while Kütson focuses on the richness of the orchestral sonorities. The gain is an appreciation of the young Britten's confident handling of the orchestra but at the expense of a concern that the structure is not as tightly argued as it would be in later more mature works.
The central vivace crystallises Roth's approach - bulldozering his way with great panache and skill but too aggressively for my taste through the pages of technical hurdles placed in the soloist's path. Where is the chimerical flair that transports the music to an altogether more interesting plane? Roth, a fraction steadier than Ehnes, seems determined to give the music a mechanistic weightier feel - compare Shaham in Boston who has that fine orchestra scampering after him in a barely controlled wild dash. Lorraine McAslan is closer in tempo to Roth - but more technically challenged - however, she and Steuart Bedford give the music just the kind of genial playful quality that seems right to my ear. This is not
a Soviet-lite work full of remorseless darkness. Where there is considerable emotional weight is in the work's closing passacaglia. Again, pacing and a carefully controlled sense of musical direction is paramount. Kütson - much as Mena for Shaham - does not yet have the full measure of this movement's carefully graduated power. Roth plays with considerable beauty in the stratospheric solo writing that decorates the slow-building orchestral texture. However, Kütson allows too much too soon - the strings play with full-on intensity from the very first statement of the passacaglia material. This is not simply a question of dynamic rather a gradation of expressive weight. Ehnes with Karabits pushes the music on with far greater urgency - I'm growing to like this more than I did at the time of my original review as it 'fits' Ehnes' overall interpretation logically. I hear this music as requiring the intractable inevitability that Berglund finds for Haendel leaving the soloist to lament futilely against an unavoidable fate. Perhaps I am imposing too much of a personal narrative onto this work and others will prefer a more objective approach which this performance certainly provides.
Pugnacious muscularity is an apt description for the opening Allegro Molto
of Weinberg's powerful concerto. Weinberg has featured in Roth's discography elsewhere - he has recorded the complete works for violin and piano also on Challenge Classics. For sure this music seems to be more attuned to Roth's intense performing style. Weinberg's star is very much in the ascendancy although, for no good or particular reason, he is not a composer whose music I know at all well. The restless urgency of the opening flecked with fanfare-like figurations overlying an unrelentingly driving basic pulse is very impressive. Interesting to compare the wonderful Leonid Kogan (latterly released on Olympia) to whom the work was dedicated. Kogan is significantly faster and rougher but he finds a gypsy wildness where Roth prefers motoric drive. Without question - and unsurprisingly - the new recording is technically far superior to the old but I find myself drawn to Kogan's wider expressive range. In Roth's hands this opening movement especially is a rather draining and harrowing, near brutalist experience … but perhaps it should
Weinberg favours a four movement format with the central pair of movements - an Allegretto Adagio
respectively - providing some respite. Again, I wonder if Kütson is more concerned with lush weight of string tone at the opening of the Allegretto
than the music's essential character. Conversely, it strikes me that Roth finds exactly the right half-lit unforced quality for Weinberg's curiously meandering theme. Indeed this pair of movements strike me as Roth's most impressive playing on the disc. If we take his technical prowess as a given, then it is here that those skills serve the music most productively. Listen to Roth's hushed playing of the passage at around 5:30 of track 5 with echoing ghosts of the fanfare figures leading to the sombrely profound Adagio
The third movement Adagio
is clearly the heart of the work. It is as impressive a movement as anything written in this style at this time. Again, Roth's pacing is much better than in the Britten - he draws the listener on in a way that quite eluded him in the other work. The closing movement aspires to being a Russian Festive Finale but achieves this only through gritted teeth - "you will
be happy" it seems to say. The bass lines thump out an obstinately square rhythm that deprives the music of any truly joyful release. Again, it’s a ferociously demanding work-out for the soloist but one Roth encompasses with apparent ease - I wonder if his 'Dancla' Stradivarius enjoyed such an assault as much. The Challenge recording comes into its own with grotesquely comic elements of the scoring from contra-bassoon to pecking xylophone registering effectively. Kogan is again strikingly swifter, reducing the ominous power that Roth finds but substituting a whirling wild energy that is equally compelling. Good though Roth is, Kogan finds extra layers of wispy sensuality in the passages immediately following the initial outburst of the movement. Although there are other violent passages to come it presages the rather surprising quiet ending of the work with the soloist accompanied by the horn group at last finding repose in an unambiguously major chord.
What is clear is that this is a major work and one that deserves far greater knowledge. The current catalogue is not exactly over-burdened by different versions. This current disc is undoubtedly superior to Ilya Grubert's Naxos version. At its bargain price point and with a logical coupling of the Myaskovsky concerto that is by no means poor but this is better. For example Grubert's finale sounds simply square without the wit of Kogan or the weighty drama of Roth - well played though it is. Better still, and possibly unlikely to be bettered, is Kogan although his version can only be found secondhand and then at a price. YouTube allows the curious to hear that performance albeit in sound even more limited than the original disc.
This Challenge disc comes with a good liner-note in English and German. As mentioned before the engineers make the most of the generous acoustic of the Jesus Christus Kirche in Berlin to produce a recording to flatter even a modest hi-fi. This is a disc that further enhances the reputations of both concertos without becoming a first choice in either work. Nick Barnard
Previous review: Michael Cookson
(Recording of the Month May 2014)
Britten discography & review index: Violin concerto