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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47 (1903 rev. 1905) [31:55]
Karelia Suite, Op.11 (1899) [15:51]
The Swan of Tuonela, Op.22 No.2 (1896 rev. 1897, 1900) [8:16]
Valse lyrique, Op.96a (1914 rev orch. 1919) [4:09]
Andante festivo, JS 34b (1922 rev 1938) [4:06]
Finlandia, Op.26 (1899) [8:16]
Jennifer Pike (violin)
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Davis
rec. June 2013, Grieghallen, Bergen
CHANDOS SACD CHSA5134 [78:24]

The booklet cover depicts Jennifer Pike as an alluring Nordic siren; swathed in red, dark hair cascading over her shoulders with her right arm elegantly leaning against a strong trunk. Beyond are the snowy wastes and the pine forests, and sunset seems to envelop the landscape in its burnished glow. Such is the Sibelian allure for the latest recording of his Violin Concerto, though such allure doesn’t extend to Andrew Davis, the Henry Wood de nos jours, who beams at us from the back of the booklet, one hand gently placed beneath his now snowy beard.
 
Yes, it’s poetry all right but how poetic is the main event of this all-orchestral disc? Is Pike tensile like Heifetz, patrician but glowing like Oistrakh, illuminating like Wicks, barely controlled like Kulenkampff, cool like Ignatius, molten like Neveu, or any other emotive state in and between these magnificent recordings – and we’ve hardly begun to scratch the surface - Stern, Telmányi, Spivakovsky, Gitlis, Kavakos and so many more.
 
I’d place her at the cooler end of the spectrum. The strong points of her reading are attention to dynamic variance and to rhythmic imperatives. She also takes the music at a sensible pace, her rubati flexible but never distended, supporting an interpretation that is refined, fluent, and structurally confident. She doesn’t have a big tone, doesn’t make any slides, and projects a sane, well-equalized scale. She’s on record as decrying those who take the slow movement too slowly – she’s used the words ‘excruciatingly slow’, so I wonder if she’s thinking specifically of Ida Haendel whose recording with Berglund certainly sports an Adagio di molto that rivals any for slow tempi. Whether you consider it excruciating is a matter for individual taste. Still, Pike’s tempo isn’t noticeably fast – indeed her pacing throughout the concerto reminds me a lot of Camilla Wicks’ – and indeed it’s perfectly par for the course. I like the way Davis encourages the strings with a degree of urgency. The finale is well pointed, and has a personable character, and evinces strong signs of rapport. I’m sure you can read between my lines by now. I found this an underwhelming experience. I miss the sense of refining fire that other names bring to this concerto; it’s not icy or non-committal – it’s far from that – but lacking in drama, possibly. You may find its clarity very much more to your liking.
 
The rest of the programme belongs to Davis and the excellent Bergen Philharmonic. Let me start with the one performance that really disappointed me. Maybe you’ve heard the two early recordings of Andante festivo – one of them the only recording that exists of Sibelius conducting – and if you have you will find Davis businesslike beyond words, hustling it in four minutes flat. Osmo Vänskä is in a different league altogether. Despite Hege Sellevåg’s admirable cor anglais playing The Swan of Tuonela also refused to fly for me. It’s reasonably elevated but lacks true atmosphere. The lighter pleasures of the Valse lyrique work better. Sellevåg is centre-stage once more in parts of the Karelia Suite, where the bubbly clarinets are a pleasure to hear. Finlandia ends a programme that is graced by a splendid SACD sound and an equally fine acoustic in the Grieghallen, Bergen. But I’m not sure that that’s enough.
 
Jonathan Woolf

And another review ...

I may be mistaken but I have the impression that Jennifer Pike’s new recording of the Sibelius Violin Concerto starts quite gently and with perhaps less of a strong profile than some other readings. The performance really takes fire at the driving orchestral tutti (track 1, 5:13) and thereafter both the solo part and the orchestral accompaniment are well projected. Miss Pike is certainly in command of the violin part and Sir Andrew Dais and the Bergen players support her keenly. The slow movement is poetically handled though the central section is appropriately impassioned. The beauty of Sibelius’ writing comes through extremely well. The finale is spirited throughout.

It may seem that in saying relatively little about this recording of the concerto I’m damning it with faint praise. That’s not my intention. I don’t believe anyone buying this disc for the concerto will be seriously disappointed. That said, if I look at the MusicWeb Masterworks Index for this work there are 34 other recordings listed there, including some that are justly renowned, and there are many more recordings that have so far not been reviewed by us. I enjoyed the recording but though I admired Jennifer Pike’s playing very much – and the quality of the orchestral accompaniment – it wasn’t a performance that made me really sit up and think that this is a truly distinctive addition to the catalogue.

Nor is the rest of the programme especially enterprising. There’s a good account of the Karelia Suite, especially in the central Ballade. The performance of The Swan of Tuonela is very fine – in fact, arguably it’s the strongest performance on the disc. Here the cor anglais player, Hege Sellevåg, offers some very eloquent playing and Davis and the Bergen orchestra distil a potent atmosphere, bring out the brooding melancholy of the piece. For the rest, Finlandia is given an enthusiastic, rousing performance and the shadowy Valse triste is well done. The Andante festivo is nobly performed but, notwithstanding my love of the music of Sibelius, I can’t regard Valse Lyrique as anything other than charming but slight. With the possible exception of Valse Lyrique all these ‘fillers’ are abundantly represented in the catalogue. I can’t help feeling that an opportunity has been missed here and that it would have been much better to ask Jennifer Pike to record a second concerto: perhaps either the Nielsen concerto or the one by Glazunov?

Chandos have recorded this programme very well indeed. The sound of the orchestra is rich, full and satisfying and in the concerto Miss Pike’s instrument is well balanced against the accompaniment. If the programme appeals or if you are a follower of Jennifer Pike then I’m sure you’ll enjoy this disc – as I did. However, I don’t think it’s one of the more important – or necessary – discs that Chandos has given us.

John Quinn

Masterwork Index: Sibelius violin concerto