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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Violin Concerto in e minor, Op.64 [30:08]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op.35 [38:06]
Arabella Steinbacher (violin)
Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Charles Dutoit
rec. Victoria Hall, Geneva, Switzerland, September 2014. DSD/DDD
Reviewed as 24/96 download from eclassical.com
Sample/stream from Qobuz
PENTATONE PTC5186504 SACD [68:14]

Selecting from the best recordings of the Bruch (No.1), Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky Violin Concertos without duplication is about as difficult as squaring the circle.

Choose my favourite Bruch, from Kyung-Wha Chung, especially valuable for offering the Scottish Fantasy, and you get an equally fine version of the Mendelssohn (Decca Legends, mid-price, 4609762).† Go for Josef Suk and Karel Ančerl (Supraphon SU36632 – review) in Bruch and Mendelssohn and you miss the Scottish Fantasy – a favourite of mine – but add a very fine version of the Berg Violin Concerto. †Alternatively I still very much like Ruggiero Ricci with Pierino Gamba on Australian Decca Eloquence 4613692, a Bruch-Mendelssohn coupling which was one of my favourites on LP to which are now added Saint-SaŽns Havanaise and Introduction and Rondo-capriccioso.

Any one of those, however, means missing out on other equally recommendable versions of the Mendelssohn coupled with the Tchaikovsky, among which the new recording must now be reckoned.† The fact that Arthur Grumiaux’s Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky coupling, with Beethoven and Brahms on Philips Duo, is now available to download only or as a special pressing from prestoclassical.co.uk eliminates one very fine competitor for that coupling, albeit at a loss.

Though Arabella Steinbacher is still comparatively young and has received plenty of plaudits – as from our own Michael Cookson, who wrote of her Prokofiev “If I were able to nominate my Artists of the Year Arabella Steinbacher and Vasily Petrenko would undoubtedly be my choices” – I am pleased that she refused to rush, whizz-kid-like, to record these two masterpieces.† In particular she has teamed up with a very fine partner in Charles Dutoit who has transformed the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande into a very fine body of players.† In the days of Ernest Ansermet’s recordings with them the quality of performance was sometimes apparent despite less than ideal playing; on this occasion no allowances have to be made apart from some barely noticeable moments of insecure ensemble.

I would rate the Mendelssohn among the best half-dozen or so recordings, not least for the sensitive account of the first two movements, which are given plenty of time to breathe without sounding over-sentimental or under-powered.† I can imagine that some would like a little more forward momentum in the first movement.† You may wish to sample for yourself, but I didn’t find it too dreamy or sentimental.† Tempi throughout both concertos are on the slow side objectively but didn’t seem so subjectively.† Conversely, some may be looking for a little more sentimentality in the slow movement – this is by no means slurpy.† Overall this is a satisfying rather than a powerful account.

It’s chiefly for the Tchaikovsky, however, that I rate the new recording so highly.† It’s such a familiar warhorse that even the best performance cannot shake off over-familiarity and the temptation is to do something quirky or to over-sentimentalise the slow movement or to make the music just a show-off, none of which can be laid at the door of the new recording.

There is plenty to show off in Arabella Steinbacher’s playing but it’s never technique for its own sake and the support which she receives is ideal.† The advertising blurb describes that support as ‘solid’ but that’s hardly the word: it’s much more sensitive than that word implies – perhaps a nuance of meaning eluded the translator.† I got my timings wrong and should have left to do something important half way through the finale but I couldn’t tear myself away until the end.

After very satisfying accounts of the first two movements – as with the Mendelssohn nothing is forced or overdriven; at times the first movement sounds rather wistful – the finale is a triumph.† It’s not that Steinbacher and Dutoit take the music at breakneck speed – in fact, their idea of allegro vivacissimo is rather slower than most and arguably slower than the marking, at 10:46 against Chung and Previn at 9:26 – but the stopwatch doesn’t always give the right impression and there’s no sense of hanging around at all.† That broader tempo may well be thanks to the conductor’s influence, since Chung’s other recording, with the Montrťal Orchestra and Dutoit, which at least one of my colleagues prefers – see note 2 below and MWI Recommends – comes in at 10:26.† Whatever the reason, it works so well that it kept me entranced.† I’m not a great fan of applause but it seemed strange on this occasion not to hear plenty of it.

Part of the secret of the new album is the very fine recording quality.† Even the mp3 version, played on modest equipment, sounds very good.1 The 24-bit download, which should be the equivalent of the high-definition stereo layer of the SACD, puts even the best of the older recordings which I have mentioned in the shade, though it benefits from a volume boost.† I can’t speak for the surround layer of the SACD but I imagine that the balance between soloist and orchestra, so well captured by the engineers, is even more noticeable in that format.

If the new recording doesn’t appeal, though I doubt that very few who sample or stream it from Qobuz will feel that way, my recommendations for squaring that circle would be to go for one of the Bruch-Mendelssohn combinations listed above, together with Kyung-Wha Chung and Andrť Previn in the Tchaikovsky (with Sibelius, Decca Originals, mid-price, 4757734)2 or Christian Tetzlaff and Kent Nagano (with the Piano Concerto, Nikolai Lugansky, PentaTone PTC5186022)3 but that clashes with my other recommendations for the coupled works, among which the BIS recording of the original and revised versions of the Sibelius is very special (Leonidas Kavakos and Osmo Všnskš, BIS-CD-500).

At current exchange rates UK readers should be able to find the SACD for the equivalent of the $18.36 price of the eclassical.com 24-bit download; purchasers in US dollars will probably find that the advantage lies with the download – gone are the days when we to the East of the pond looked with envy upon US CD prices.† Mp3 and 16-bit downloads are considerably less expensive at $12.24.

All in all, then, if you are looking for very fine performances of these two concertos, extremely well recorded, Arabella Steinbacher and Charles Dutoit could provide the answer to your prayer.† Even if you already have one or more recordings of these works you should consider adding this to your collection.† Were it not for the reservations which I anticipate that some will have, but which I don’t share, I would have made this a Recording of the Month.† Indeed, as I was proof-reading this review I saw that another reviewer – not MusicWeb International – has criticised those slow tempi which I noted but didn’t find troublesome.

1 as played on a Roberts Zoombox 2 FM/DAB/DAB+/CD/SD/USB player, £100 well spent for the kitchen or bedroom, apart from the awful name.† (I have no financial interest in any equipment which I mention).
2 or Double Decca E4481072 with Charles Dutoit, plus Piano Concertos 1-3 (Victoria Postnikova).
3 see Download News 2013/3 for my review of that, another PentaTone recording of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto (Julia Fischer) and other recordings.† You can find other recommendations for both the Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky at MWI Recommends.

Brian Wilson

 




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