Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64 (1838-44) [27:02]
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Violin Concerto No. 2, Sz.112 (1937-38) [35:17]
Augustin Hadelich (violin)
Norwegian Radio Orchestra/Miguel Harth-Bedoya
rec. 2014, Concert Hall, NRK Radio, Oslo, Norway. DDD
AVIE AV2323 [62:25]

What at first may seem like an odd coupling this programme has its own logic. Both works were the second attempts of the respective composers to create a violin concerto. The composer’s earlier works in the genre have received considerable advocacy in recent times, especially Bartók’s, but neither of these represents the composer in his maturity. Here we have two of the most popular concertos in the repertoire and any new account would have to be special to make it worthy of issue. Both performances and recording are excellent without being exceptional. What we get, however, confounds expectations.

First, the Mendelssohn is treated to a full-throated, robust interpretation — nothing overly sweet or sentimental for these artists. Tempos are standard and Hadelich plays with a bright and silvery tone. One misses the richer sound of an Isaac Stern - with Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra - and the orchestra can occasionally take on an unwanted force. Still, overall, I found these performers’ approach a refreshing change, especially the slow movement where Hadelich adjusts the dynamics well — a slight crescendo on a note and gentle backing off. The finale is bright and crisp and quite engaging. There are so many great recordings of this evergreen concerto that to recommend one over another seems futile and solely up to personal taste. Among modern recordings, I am particularly taken with Cho-Liang Lin’s 1984 account with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Michael Tilson Thomas coupled with the Saint-Saëns’ Third Concerto.

The Bartók, on the other hand, receives a gentler performance than one usually hears. Everything seems easy and falls into place without much incident. Some of that robust quality in the Mendelssohn wouldn’t have gone amiss here. Also, there is an apparent lack of Hungarian spice from these artists. Tempos tend to be as the composer ordered, the whole concerto coming in with timing very similar to my benchmark Zehetmair/Ivan Fischer account with the Budapest Festival Orchestra (review). Hadelich certainly plays his virtuoso part as well as any violinist I’ve heard and does not shortchange those quarter-tones in the first movement. The clear recording with a superb and natural balance between violin and orchestra allows one to hear more orchestral detail than in any recording I can recall. The Norwegian Radio Orchestra performs very well, but does not have the character of the Hungarians under Fischer or the Frankfurt Radio Symphony under Peter Eötvös for Patricia Kopatchinskaja’s Gramophone-award winning account (review). The latter may be guilty of over-projection, but still knocks me sideways every time I hear it. Now, that’s an exceptional performance.

One thing that is exceptional in this release are the illuminating notes by the young violinist himself. Hadelich writes very well and gives what could otherwise be a routine description of the works a really personal touch, as well as plenty of detail. For those listeners attracted to this particular combination of concertos, though, these performances have plenty to recommend them — even if neither would be my first choice for the individual work.

Leslie Wright

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