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Eric Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35 (1945) [25:36]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Violin Concerto, Op. 15 (1939) [32:23]
Vilde Frang (violin)
Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra/James Gaffigan
rec. 30 June-2 July and 28 August 2015, Hessiger Rundfunk, Frankfurt

“It has been a long-time wish of mine to bring together on one recording two of my favourite concertos” writes Vilde Frang in the booklet accompanying this fine disc. Her performances reflect the love and respect she has for both works.

You can listen to Korngold’s Violin Concerto on more than one level. It is certainly a romantic wallow, with the composer’s experience in film music evident throughout. Indeed, anyone allergic to this idea will probably react unfavourably to the work. At the same time, there are passages of genuine pathos, especially in the first movement, one whose atmosphere rather recalls that of Walton’s celebrated concerto, though Korngold, gifted melodist though he was, cannot rival Walton in this respect. The solo part is idiomatic, yet highly challenging, and the orchestral writing is sumptuous, the work of a real professional. The finale is the least convincing movement, the composer’s wish to produce a bravura and exciting close not backed up by sufficiently distinctive musical material.

Frang’s tone is rich and strong, and she is fearless and accurate in attack. She plays the opening of the concerto for all it is worth, slightly indulgent, perhaps, but I do think the music cries out for it. The work is a virtuoso showpiece, and she wants for nothing in this respect. The finale is stunning. The orchestral playing under James Gaffigan is outstanding.

Benjamin Britten’s mother, Edith, died in January 1937. Her ambitions for her talented son amounted to nothing less than that he become the “fourth B”. The young composer was devastated by his mother’s death, and when, towards the end of the following year, he began work on his Violin Concerto, he chose the key of D, as had Beethoven and Brahms in their respective concertos. He also, daringly, decided to open the work with a timpani solo, as had Beethoven before him. Were these decisions taken in conscious homage to his mother? Perhaps, but in the event, the concerto was dedicated to the critic, Henry Boys, whom Britten had met at the Royal College of Music. A further masterpiece, Sinfonia da Requiem, completed the following year, was to be dedicated to the memory of both his parents.

By the time his Violin Concerto was premiered, Britten, like Korngold, had extensive film music experience, though in films of a very different kind from those with which Korngold was associated. Britten’s concerto is as far from film music as can be imagined. It was composed for the Spanish violinist, Antonio Brosa, who gave the first performance with Barbirolli in New York in 1940. It is a thoughtful, frequently sombre work, appropriate to a time of conflict, both global and, more particularly, in Spain. The soloist’s role is often at odds with that of the orchestra, providing a high-lying, singing line over a masterly, yet frequently austere orchestral accompaniment. The richness of Frang’s tone is once again in evidence, yet she affects a certain febrility at times, which is highly expressive and fitting. This performance is at least as convincing as the two that have most impressed me in recent years, from Janine Jansen (coupled with Beethoven, Decca 4781530) and James Ehnes (with Shostakovich, Onyx 4113). All three soloists have the measure of the work, each one, with slight differences of emphasis, presenting the work as a unified whole. Such moments as the lead-in to the return of the opening material of the first movement are splendidly convincing in the Frang performance, and here, as throughout, she is superbly supported by her conductor and the magnificent Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra. Amongst many other felicitous touches, I was particularly struck by the brilliant spiccato bowing in the finale’s bassoon and violin duet. The closing pages, too, are given with a certain detached poise that makes them all the more moving. If I retain a very slight preference for Ehnes overall it is because his playing seems just to have the edge in terms of character and personality.

These two performances from Vilde Frang can be wholeheartedly recommended to anybody attracted by the coupling. The sound of the orchestra as recorded is sumptuously rich, though the sound stage is close, with the closing violin harmonics and harp chords at the end of the first movement of the Britten rather lacking distance and intimacy. The booklet carries a thoughtful essay by Mervyn Cooke that interestingly eschews analysis or description in favour of historical background to both works, skilfully drawing parallels between them.

William Hedley

Previous review: Michael Cookson



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