Fantasies, Rhapsodies and Daydreams
Franz WAXMAN (1906-1967)
Carmen Fantasie for violin and orchestra (1946) [11.41]
Pablo de SARASATE (1844-1908)
Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs) for violin and orchestra (1878) [9.01]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
The Lark Ascending romance for violin and orchestra (1914, orchestrated 1920) [14.40]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Havanaise for violin and orchestra, Op. 83 (1887) [11.06]
Introduction et Rondo capriccioso for violin and orchestra, Op. 28 (1863) [9.51]
Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
Médiation from Thaïs for violin and orchestra (c. 1893) [5.57]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Tzigane for violin and orchestra (1924) [10.52]
Arabella Steinbacher (violin)
Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo/Lawrence Foster
rec. October 2014, Salle Yakov Kreizberg of the Auditorium Rainier III, Monte Carlo
PENTATONE SACD PTC5186536 [73.37]

Arabella Steinbacher first came to my attention in 2011 when I reviewed her stunning recording of the Shostakovich first and second violin concertos and was thrilled by her superb playing with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Andris Nelsons on Orfeo (review).

Following her most recent releases of sonatas from Franck and Richard Strauss (2014), and concertos by Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky (2015), this new album traverses lighter, more popular repertoire for violin and orchestra.

Certainly it’s an appealing programme of seven much loved works, all enduring audience favourites. Steinbacher is fully aware of the performing tradition of these works stating “Less than a century ago it was still very common that great violinists like Heifetz, Kreisler, Menuhin etc. played virtuosic pieces in their concerts… Nowadays these pieces are unfortunately rarely played in concert halls.” The reason for the neglect is mainly because this repertoire is “not serious enough.”

The major work is Vaughan Williams’ romance The Lark Ascending, a work Steinbacher has recently successfully added to her repertoire. In fact I heard Steinbacher play the work at the Frauenkirche as part of the 2016 Dresden Music Festival (review). During my interview with Steinbacher on the morning of the Frauenkirche concert she explained that The Lark Ascending is not played too often in Germany. It’s a completely different picture in the U.K. where this piece has an enduring popularity, once again reaching number one in the 2016 ‘Classic FM Hall of Fame’. It’s the seventh time it has topped the chart and been described as the nation’s best loved piece of classical music. The Lark Ascending certainly has strong associations with bucolic English landscapes providing a stark contrast from the world events in the months leading up to the First World War in 1914. Vaughan Williams’s inspiration was a George Meredith 122 line poem of the same name about the skylark. Selected lines from Meredith’s poem which the composer had inscribed on the published score, often contained in concert programmes, are absent in the booklet here. The score’s beauty and affecting mood were as powerful as ever in this glorious performance of distinct maturity from Steinbacher. Playing with complete assurance the lyrical soaring and floating melody ascends gloriously from the violin’s upper register.

A new work for Steinbacher the violin showpiece Carmen Fantasie forms part of Waxman’s soundtrack to the Jean Negulesco award winning film noir Humoresque (1946). As the title suggests the Carmen Fantasie uses themes from Bizet’s opera Carmen as does the Carmen Fantasy by Pablo de Sarasate. Spanish violin virtuoso and composer Sarasate is represented here by his Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs) from 1878. In four continuous sections the dazzling score contains original gypsy melodies which Steinbacher plays with flair and a sense of spontaneity.

A pair of works by French composer Saint-Saëns suits Steinbacher’s elegant technique down to the ground. First the alluring and atmospheric Havanaise based on the two-beat dance rhythm of the habanera of Cuba. Next comes the charming and pronouncedly rhythmic Introduction et Rondo capriccioso with all the quality of a traditional Spanish habanera which the composer originally intended as the finale to his first violin concerto. Widely performed as an encore piece and justly celebrated Massenet’s Méditation is a symphonic intermezzo from his opera Thaïs. Reflecting the inner turmoil of Massenet’s heroine the piece sounds so meltingly beautiful in the hands of Steinbacher. The final work on the album is Ravel Tzigane a raptly atmospheric work and highly technical which Steinbacher takes in her stride.

Lawrence Foster conducts the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo in a stylish performance assisting in bringing this music vividly to life. Recorded at the Salle Yakov Kreizberg, Monte Carlo the sound quality is to a high standard being especially well balanced. Here Steinbacher is playing the ‘Booth’ Stradivari from 1716 an instrument producing a lovely, rich timbre that is convincingly captured.

Since its release in 2001 on EMI I have greatly admired the album Fire and Ice that American violinist Sarah Chang recorded with the Berliner Philharmoniker under Placido Domingo’s baton of violin showpieces very similar to this from Steinbacher.
In 2011 Maxim Vengerov also released a desirable 3 CD collection gathering together previously released recordings of showpieces and also concertos titled Phénoménal Vengerov. This recording easily rubs shoulders with those from Chang, Vengerov and several other notable performers such as Anne-Sophie Mutter and Itzhak Perlman.

Assured and focused, Steinbacher provides brilliant virtuoso playing of these evergreen and mainly theatrical violin showpieces that is hard to beat.

Michael Cookson

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