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Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35 (1945) [25.36]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Violin Concerto, Op. 15 (1938/39 with later revisions) [32.23]
Vilde Frang (violin)
Frankfurt Radio Symphony/James Gaffigan
rec. 30 June-2 July, 28 August 2015, Hessischer Rundfunk, Frankfurt, Germany
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 600921 [58.12]

Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang first came to my attention in 2015 with a Warner Classics issue of Mozart violin concertos and the Sinfonia concertante with Arcangelo under Jonathan Cohen. Frang’s playing was remarkably accomplished and hot on its heels comes this new release of two remarkable twentieth-century works written just six years apart.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold was proclaimed a genius, when he was only ten years old, by Mahler. By the time Korngold reached his twenties the greatest musicians in the world were playing his music with his dark, seminal three act opera Die tote Stadt establishing his name. By 1934 it was too dangerous to be Jewish in a German-speaking country, and Korngold left for the United States where he landed a lucrative contract in Hollywood composing music for films. Completed in 1945 the concerto, first offered to soloist Bronisław Huberman, was actually premièred by Jascha Heifetz. An amalgam of themes from a number of his film scores, the concerto is full of lyrical, sentimental tunes with lush romantic orchestration.

In a distinguished performance Frang strikes the right balance between artistic sincerity and Hollywood glitz. High romanticism is key but she never gets syrupy and in the big sweeping melodies the effect is poetic with a melting beauty. Remarkable is the sense of aching yearning she produces in the haunting opening movement and aptly demonstrates deep concentration in the lovingly played Romance. There is an abundance of necessary virtuosity from Frang for the rollicking final movement that reminded me at times of Copland’s Rodeo. This outstanding recording can stand comparison with rival accounts headed by Anne-Sophie Mutter with the LSO under André Previn on Deutsche Grammophon, released in 2004, and Nikolaj Znaider with the Wiener Philharmoniker under Valery Gergiev issued in 2009 on RCA Red Seal. Worthy of attention too is the much acclaimed 1993 Henry Wood Hall, London recording from Gil Shaham with the LSO under André Previn on Deutsche Grammophon.

My admiration for Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto, a twentieth-century masterwork of the genre, goes back over thirty years. The starting point came when I attended 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 visit 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 and with some editing by Brosa it seems that Britten undertook revisions in the 1950s and in 1965. When soloist Janine Jansen performed the concerto in 2009 at Berlin with the Berliner Philharmoniker under Daniel Harding I was surprised to discover that the world’s most famous orchestra hadn’t played it for fifty years. Britten’s century of his birth in 2013 created interest in the concerto which is now experiencing a renaissance as borne out by the number of recent recordings. During an interview in 2012 with distinguished violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter she expressed to me an interest in playing the Britten concerto in the future (and also the Walton). So fingers crossed that she will add the work to her repertoire.

On the present recording we hear playing of high intensity from Frang in the powerfully brooding melodies of the opening movement. This engenders an unsettlingly sinister feel. There’s a dark undercurrent together with a particular sense of emotional struggle often found in Britten’s music. Strong and dynamic, the central movement develops a tension-filled stormy outburst and feels like a harbinger of impending danger. In the extended Cadenza Frang convincingly conveys an icy chill that penetrates to the bone. Britten fills the Finale with writing of dark passion like an anguished cry of both physical and emotional pain. Assured, with steadfast concentration, Frang’s playing generates real passion. Frang is a captivating soloist in the Britten providing marvellous 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 greatly admire too is from Janine Jansen who brings an engaging intensity to the score. Jansen recorded the work with the LSO under Paavo Järvi in 2009 at the Abbey Road Studios, London and it was issued by Decca.

Vilde Frang provides a remarkable performance of the Korngold concerto - as good as any I have heard - and the Britten account is highly accomplished too. The orchestral playing is out of the top drawer and feels totally in sympathy with the soloist. All of this can be heard in astonishingly vivid sound.

Michael Cookson



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