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Jonathan Woolf
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Louis SPOHR (1784-1859)
Violin Concerto No. 8 in A minor, Op. 47 "In Form einer Gesangsszene" ("In the form of a vocal scene") (1816) [21:42]
Franz von VECSEY (1893-1935)
Prelude for solo violin (1914) [3:54]
Heinrich Wilhelm ERNST (1814-1865)
Concerto in F sharp minor Op.23 (Concerto Allegro-Pathétique) (published 1850) [19:07]
Nathan MILSTEIN (1904-1992)
Paganiniana (pub. 1954) [6:44]
Laura Bortolotto (violin: Spohr, Vecsey)
Christian Joseph Saccon (violin: Ernst, Milstein)
L’Orchestra Città di Ferrara/Maffeo Scarpis
rec. September 2013, Ferrara

I am taking a slightly unusual step in reviewing a disc that has only limited circulation, and then only via the Italian music magazine noted above. However the repertoire is interesting enough to warrant this review, and curious readers will find the website easy to navigate.

There are two violinists involved and it’s Laura Bortolotto who takes on Spohr’s Concerto No.8, that most operatically-inclined of violin concertos. Though there have been a number of approaches over the years, one tends to divide violinists into those who follow Heifetz’s intense dynamism or those who hew closer to the more vocalised elegance of Albert Spalding or Georg Kulenkampff in their readings from the 1930s. Of these twin poles, I’d say Bortollotto is closer in spirit to the Spalding-Kulenkampff axis. Though temporally speaking her opening movement is quite relaxed – so was Heifetz – she builds up the tension through the two ensuing movements. She takes Kulenkampff’s tempo precisely for the central movement playing it with real bel canto lyricism, adeptly becoming the orator in her own drama, a drama sympathetically marshalled by Maffeo Scarpis who directs the orchestra of the city of Ferrara. She surmounts the problems of a live, unedited recording very nicely, a few brief moments in the central movement aside, and emerges a fine exponent of this work.

It’s that powerful romantic exponent Christian Joseph Saccon, whom I’ve reviewed here several times, who takes on the challenges of Ernst’s Concerto Pathétique. There are a couple of contemporary exemplars in this tough work, Ilya Grubert, with Dmitry Yablonsky and the forces of the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra (Naxos 8.557565) and Sherban Lupu with Ian Hobson and the Sinfonia de Camera in their on-going Ernst project (Toccata TOCC 0189). Old hands, however, will not need prompting from me that Lukas David’s 1974 Supraphon LP recording with Libor Hlaváček directing the Prague Symphony is the real star recording, subsequently unsurpassed. Saccon is, though, an excellent fiddler with just the right style for the work, and with an impressive technical armoury. Stylistically he is closer to Grubert’s more cosmopolitan approach than to Lupu’s period performance-conscious reading, with its constant battery of expressive devices. Saccon’s elegant legato is a marker of his romanticised flair. The Ferrara orchestra copes well with the demands placed on it though it’s undeniable that the winds are less forward and characterful than the similar players in Prague; also that the Russian Philharmonic is a more robust body.

There are the two smaller pieces to consider, both for solo violin. Though Franz von Vecsey did record some of his own music, he didn’t record this Prelude, which is taken on by Bortolotto. It’s a strong, serious meditation, neither especially Bachian nor Regerian, very much worth reviving. One can hear bow changes and fingerboard noise in the close-up recording but these add to the vitality, a couple of intonation buckles aside. Saccon plays Milstein’s Paganini confection, which possibly owes its genesis to Efrem Zimbalist’s earlier Sarasateana. Milstein left two recordings, and Ricci, Accardo and others have also chipped in, so this is not as out-of-the-way as Vecsey’s. Saccon negotiates his way triumphantly through this dazzling finger-buster.

So, if you like the repertoire and are prepared for a few inevitable live incidents, you may want to track down this well-programmed disc.

Jonathan Woolf