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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Violin Concerto, Op. 15 (1938/39 with later revisions) [34:03]
Mieczysław WEINBERG (1919-1996)
Violin Concerto, Op. 67 (1959) [28:45]
Linus Roth (violin)
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Mihkel Kütson
rec. 26-29 August 2013, Jesus Christ Church, Berlin/Dahlem, Germany
SACD stereo/multi-channel (Hybrid)

Challenge Classics issues some wonderfully performed and recorded discs. This pair of twentieth-century violin concertos recorded in 2013 will serve further to enhance the label’s already excellent reputation.
It’s always pleasing to hear a new recording of the Benjamin Britten Violin Concerto a splendid work that, relative to its high quality, deserves to be included on more concert programmes. The addition of Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s Violin Concerto is a real bonus. Currently there is an increasing interest in Weinberg’s music and hearing his Violin Concerto will I’m sure be a first for most listeners.
German violin soloist Linus Roth won the Echo Klassik Award in 2006 with pianist Jose Gallardo for his EMI debut album of violin sonatas. A winner of a number of prestigious prizes Roth plays the Antonio Stradivari ‘Dancla’ (1703). In a YouTube publicity video for this release Roth expresses his love of searching out and playing neglected works or works that have fallen out of the repertoire. Certainly no newcomer to Weinberg’s music Roth with pianist Jose Gallardo has already recorded a 3 disc set of Weinberg complete sonatas for violin and piano released in 2013 on Challenge Classics. A real bonus on this release is the sterling accompaniment from the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, one of the most talented orchestras on the international stage. A new name to me, Estonia-born conductor Mihkel Kütson, has been having success with mainly European orchestras. I notice that Kütson has conducted prestigious engagements at the Komische Oper Berlin, the Sächsischen Staatsoper Dresden and with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin at the Philharmonie Berlin.
My admiration for the Britten Violin Concerto, Op. 15 goes back to 1985. It was at a marvellous concert at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester with the great Ida Haendel performing the work with the BBC Philharmonic. Britten completed the score in 1939 largely in Canada during his trip with Peter Pears to North America. It was Sir John Barbirolli who conducted the première at Carnegie Hall, New York in 1940 with Spanish soloist Antonio Brosa and the New York Philharmonic. Dissatisfied with some technical aspects of the three movement work and with some editing by Brosa it seems that Britten undertook revisions in 1950, 1954 and 1965. The relative neglect of the score on concert programmes is surprising although there are a number of fine recordings in the catalogue. Britten’s centenary in 2013 prompted an increasing interest in the score. When soloist Janine Jansen performed the concerto in 2009 in Berlin with the Berliner Philharmoniker I was surprised to discover that the orchestra hadn’t played it for fifty years. When I interviewed renowned violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter in 2012 she expressed interest in playing the Britten concerto in the future. So fingers crossed that Mutter will be adding the Britten work to her repertoire.
The powerfully brooding melodies of the opening movement Moderato con moto have an unsettlingly sinister feel. There’s a dark undercurrent together with a particular sense of emotional struggle often found in Britten’s music. Vigorous playing from Roth in the strong and dynamic second movement Vivace develops into a tension-filled stormy outburst and feels like a harbinger of impending danger. In the extended cadenza Roth conveys an icy chill that penetrates to the bone. Few players bring the remarkable intensity of emotion that Roth generates in this movement. Britten fills the Finale - a Passacaglia - with writing of dark passion like an anguished cry of both physical and emotional pain. Assured and highly alert, Roth plays with a searing passion and unyielding concentration and these combine to stunning effect.
Roth is an engaging soloist providing such splendid playing but the deeply satisfying recording Ida Haendel made with Paavo Berglund remains peerless. It was in 1977 at Southampton Guild Hall that Haendel produced her account with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra playing with great emotional intensity and technical proficiency. Another account I admire is from Janine Jansen playing with an impressive freshness and a genuine sense of spontaneity. She recorded the work with the LSO under Paavo Järvi in 2009 at the Abbey Road Studios, London on Decca. In addition Mark Lubotsky’s 1970 Snape Maltings account (Decca) with the same forces is intensely satisfying.
It’s good to see the music of Mieczysław Weinberg getting attention, mainly in the recording studio and very occasionally on the concert stage and opera house. It was good to see that the 2010 Bregenz Festival featured a ‘Weinberg Retrospective’ and gave the stage première of Weinberg’s Holocaust opera The Passenger directed by David Pountney; the festival music director. Also given at Bregenz was the Western première of Weinberg’s Gogol opera The Portrait directed by John Fulljames. David Pountney gave high praise to Weinberg, describing him as the “third man” alongside the two great compositional geniuses of the Soviet Union: Prokofiev and Shostakovich.
In the process of doing some research I realised that Weinberg’s cause is significantly hindered by his mixed classification in the record catalogues and music books. In various reference sources I have seen numerous different spellings of his name. He is mainly referred to as Mieczysław Weinberg and also named Moishe Weinberg or Mieczysław Wajnberg; Mieczyslaw Vainberg; Moishei Vainberg or Moisey Vaynberg. In addition I have seen Weinberg described as a Soviet composer and also a Polish composer; sometimes a Polish/Russian composer, a Jewish/Polish and a Russian/Jewish composer. Sadly there is so much biographical detail missing about Weinberg’s troubled life and the turbulent times in which he lived. The recent biography Mieczyslaw Weinberg: In Search of Freedom by David Fanning has clearly not yet had sufficient time to put everything satisfactorily into place.
Weinberg’s immediate family as Polish-born Jews perished during the Nazi Holocaust in a Warsaw ghetto. Precariously, having to keep one step ahead of his oppressors Weinberg constantly had to uproot. When the Germans invaded Poland in 1939 Weinberg fled eastwards until he escaped the advancing German army and arrived in what is now Uzbekistan. After the war at Shostakovich’s insistence Weinberg moved to Moscow. Exile was both a curse and a blessing. On the one hand, as a Polish Jew, it saved him from being murdered by the Germans; on the other it drove him into Stalin’s terror regime. It seems that the death of Weinberg’s father-in-law was a direct result of Jewish persecution. Following a series of anti-Semitic purges Weinberg was himself arrested in 1953 and imprisoned but released after Stalin’s death. He became successfully ‘rehabilitated’ within the doctrine of the Soviet political system.
Composed in 1959 Weinberg’s Violin Concerto Op. 67 bears a dedication to Leonid Kogan one of the pre-eminent Soviet violinists of the 20th century. Unfortunately the booklet notes do not explain whether Kogan played the score regularly although he certainly recorded it as we know from an EMI-Melodiya LP ASD2755. We do know that his friend Shostakovich thought extremely highly of the work, praise that is certainly justified as this concerto is a hidden jewel.
Throughout the concerto I was struck by the strong sense of close collaboration between soloist and orchestra. Marked Allegro molto the hard driven opening movement is seriously brooding and windswept with a recurring theme that embeds itself firmly in the consciousness. Weinberg paints a broad landscape in the Allegretto and gives it a breezy outdoor feel. Then as if darkness has quickly arrived the writing develops an intense claustrophobic quality with an unsettling undercurrent.
Bleak and austere, the Adagio is pervaded from first to last by a powerful sense of isolation and world-weariness. Coming as a welcome relief after the anguish that has gone before there is an optimistic feel to the relatively high-spirited Finale, Allegro risoluto yet this remains only cautiously dance-like.
This is a highly desirable release played delightfully by violinist Linus Roth. The wonderful tone he produces from his ‘Dancla’ Stradivari has a stunning range of colour and dynamic, hitting every note with pin-point accuracy. The orchestral support from the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin is exceptional. The responsive and well prepared conductor never forces the pace or over-pressurises the weight of sound.
I played this hybrid SACD on my standard player. Recorded in 2013 at the desirable studio venue the Jesus Christ Church, Berlin/Dahlem the sound engineers have done a remarkable job providing excellent clarity, presence and balance. It’s worth getting this recording for the Weinberg concerto alone but with the addition of the Britten it becomes self recommending.
Michael Cookson

Britten discography & review index: Violin concerto