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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Violin Concerto in D, Op.77 [38:29]
Bela BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Violin Concerto No. 1, Op. posth., Sz 36, BB4BA [20:26]
Janine Jansen (violin)
Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia; London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Antonio Pappano
rec. live, February 2015, Santa Cecilia Hall, Rome (Brahms); August 2015, Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London (Bartók).
DECCA 4788412 [58:55]

After a recent less than happy experience when I reviewed a decidedly quirky recording of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto this disc came as a welcome reminder of the pleasure to be derived from thoughtful, un-showy musicianship. Janine Jansen has chosen a most unusual, probably unprecedented coupling of concertos by Brahms and Bartók but, as is pointed out in the booklet, there’s a link in the form of Hungarian connections and the pairing works well. One reason that it works, is that, as we shall see, Miss Jansen brings out the singing quality of both works. In this she’s ideally supported by Sir Antonio Pappano. She refers in the booklet, with obvious pleasure, to the extent to which he encourages cantabile playing and that is evident in these performances.

The first movement of the Brahms plays for 22:08 in this performance, which indicates a fairly spacious performance. Pappano’s initial tempo is quite broad but when I made spot comparisons with a couple of longstanding favourite versions – by David Oistrakh with George Szell and the aristocratic version by Nathan Milstein with William Steinberg – I found that Steinberg‘s core speed is very similar while Szell is actually a little bit broader. As I listened to this Jansen performance there’s no doubt that she is frequently very expressive and on these occasions neither she nor Pappano are afraid to broaden the tempo. I like this approach provided it’s not overdone – and it’s not overdone here. It’s a very different approach to the urgency of Heifetz in his famous account with Reiner but though I greatly respect the virtuosity in that performance it’s a reading that I admire rather than love; for me Heifetz doesn’t convey the lyrical soul of this movement in the way that, in their different ways, Milstein and Oistrakh both do – as does Jansen.

Jansen offers a good deal of poetry in her account of the first movement but her playing also has steel when required. Like most soloists – though not Milstein who supplies his own cadenza - she plays the Joachim cadenza (17:07-20:15) and she gives a tremendous account of it. Coming out of the cadenza her playing – and that of the orchestra – is dreamy and lingering. In fact it’s arguable that she lingers just a little too much but the results are beguiling. In summary I enjoyed her version of this great movement very much indeed and I particularly relished the songful nature of her playing.

It’s not all that often that you find a recording of this work which credits the principal oboist but here Francesco Di Rosa, principal of the Santa Cecilia orchestra is mentioned by name, and rightly so. His lovely oboe solo ushers in a wonderful, poetic account of the slow movement which, to my mind, is beautifully poised and sung. Jansen’s tone ranges from G-string warmth to silvery purity in alt and she receives fine support from Pappano and his orchestra. This movement is surely one of the composer’s most inspired creations and I enjoyed this particular performance very much. The finale is athletic and energetic. There’s plenty of dash and brilliance in this performance but the lyrical stretches are equally well done.

This is a fine performance of the Brahms concerto. Whilst it doesn’t, I think, supplant such classic versions as those mentioned above – and I’d add Ginette Neveu’s 1946 recording to that list – there is a great deal to admire here, not least the poetic side of the performance. Reviewing the recording in its download format, I see that Brian Wilson was troubled by the tendency to linger in the first movement. I understand his concern. There’s a fine line between expressiveness and indulgence in this movement. For me Jansen stays the right side of that line – albeit only just at times - but others may disagree.

The coupling is novel. Bartók’s First Violin Concerto was inspired by his unrequited love for a young Hungarian violinist, Steffi Geyer. The two movements portrayed, respectively, the “heavenly” and “humorous” sides of her personality. The first movement is a gift to a player of Jansen’s lyrical gifts and from the outset her singing tone is a delight. She and Pappano gradually build the tension but in doing so they never once sacrifice beauty. In the passage between the main climax of the movement and its close Jansen’s soft, high playing is simply bewitching. The second movement contains much music that is a good deal more vigorous and vivacious. But even so there are a number of episodes that allow Jansen – and Pappano too – to be romantic. This movement is very varied and Jansen and Pappano allow us to appreciate this variety. What would Brahms and Joachim have made of this coupling, I wonder? I hope they would have approved.

Both of these performances are presented in very good sound; there’s warmth but not at the expense of clarity. The Brahms was recorded at a series of live performances yet there’s no intrusive audience noise and no applause.

John Quinn

Previous review: Brian Wilson



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