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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Violin Concerto in E minor (1845) [26:30]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Phantasie for Violin & Orchestra Op.131 (1853) [13:54]
Violin Concerto in D minor (1854) [27:49]
Philippe Graffin (violin)
Orchestra de Padova e del Veneto/Tuomas Rousi
rec. Auditorium Pollini, Padova, Italy, December 2-4 2013
COBRA RECORDS 0043 [68:35]

The coupling of Mendelssohn's most famous violin concerto with that of fellow early German Romantic Schumann is a logical and interesting juxtaposition. Over the years several violinists have offered the same programme from Szeryng to Capuçon, Tetzlaff to Barton-Pine to name just four. Now it is the turn of Philippe Graffin. Graffin is a violinist I am always pleased to hear. In the past, his discs have proved to be revelatory, whether in the discovery of unfamiliar repertoire - his disc of rare French works on Hyperion is a particular favourite - or in insights into more standard fare - here I'm thinking of his excellent version of the Elgar concerto based on the original manuscript. Indeed, Graffin's discography is impressively large and diverse.

The booklet notes are not completely clear but it seems that the two works were recorded together over a period of three days, though the Schumann works were recorded live with patching sessions whereas the Mendelssohn is a wholly studio affair - albeit using the same location. I find this to be a disc of two halves too. Before listening I would have thought Graffin's tone, technique and temperament would be ideal for the Mendelssohn. For reasons I am not completely clear about I find this a rather disappointing performance. Of course Graffin can play all the notes with sovereign skill but he seems to be in a rather vexed and feisty mood. Tempi in the outer movements are pretty much standard and he chooses a flowing tempo for the central Andante. But there is a sense, especially in the opening movement, of impatience. Graffin does not rush but there is a distinct sense of him sitting right on the front of the beat trying to get the orchestra to go with him. Yes, the allegro marking is qualified with molto appassionato but there is something distinctly unsettling about this approach. The interest with the Mendelssohn, apart from its sheer melodic attractiveness, is that it sits near the cusp of Classical and Romantic sensibilities. In that circumstance the music can be interpreted either way. So its fine for Graffin to look ‘forward’ to the Romantics but his choices are further blurred by a slightly strange use of authentic-style phrasing and vibrato - as well as the faster tempo of the central movement. Ultimately it’s a clash of styles that does not work for me - the first time I have felt this way about any Graffin performance I have heard.

It is important to note that, unusually, Graffin uses his own cadenza in the work's first movement. In the liner note Graffin points out that there is no musical imperative to use the near-ubiquitous cadenza that was printed in the work's first edition. This was not by Mendelssohn but rather by Ferdinand David. Graffin makes a fair point that other concerti - the Beethoven particularly - have had numerous cadenzas written for them (Riccardo Ricci famously recorded it with 14 different cadenzas) but the Mendelssohn is almost only ever played with David's. As is to be expected, Graffin's offering is apt, interesting and well-played but personally it does not overturn my abiding concerns. My passing observation is that a ‘new’ cadenza should be of its own age rather than necessarily emulating the time in which the original work was written which to a degree is the path Graffin treads. My niggling concerns are topped off by the recording and the orchestral contribution. If my suppositions regarding the recording conditions are correct, the absence of an audience in the Auditorium Pollini for the Mendelssohn sessions makes the acoustic more reverberant. Both orchestra and soloist are quite closely miked which gives the sound a slightly inflated quality, which again undermines any ‘Classical’ approach while the reverberation of the hall blurs detail and texture. The orchestral playing is perfectly good although by no means exceptional in these days of dazzingly fine orchestral technique.

So I approached the second half of the programme in somewhat deflated mood. But in fact, for whatever reason, the Schumann Concerto - and the rarer Phantasie - seem to chime with Graffin’s mood much better. He opts for a wholly Romantic approach and really does make the most of a work which was infamously dubbed by Joseph Joachim as “morbid[ly] brooding [with] tiresome repetitions”. This was no off the cuff remark by Joachim - together with Clara Schumann and Brahms they made sure the work was not published after the composer's death so as not to damage his reputation. The score was deemed lost for nearly a hundred years until it was promoted by the Nazis as a propaganda tool in 1937. There is an enduring legacy to the Brahms/Joachim judgement as the work remains the least well-known of Schumann’s three main concertante works for violin, cello and piano. In the catalogue, it has been wholly rehabilitated with versions from many famous players. Gidon Kremer seems especially taken with the work, having no less than 3 versions in the catalogue: on Warner/EMI with Muti, Teldec with Harnoncourt and DG with Ozawa.

I have to admit to not knowing nearly as many versions of this concerto as I do of the Mendelssohn - Kremer/Muti, Bell/Dohanyi and Neudauer/Gonzalez is the sum of my knowledge. All those versions are very good but I do very much like the sense of freedom, almost of spontaneous inspiration, that Graffin finds. As in the Mendelssohn - although to less good effect there - Graffin is not worried about 'digging in' to his violin (he plays a rich-toned 1730 Domenico Busano). Perhaps Joachim missed the melodic richness with which Schumann invested much of his other work, but instead there is an unusual though powerful structure with thematic transformation and reworkings that wholly belie the idea that the music was the work of a broken mind. Both Bell and Graffin keep the first movement moving forward but Graffin is particularly good at giving the music urgency - again a quality that undermined the opening of the Mendelssohn but one that works well here. The central Langsam is very impressive too.

The disc is usefully completed with another Schumann concertante work - the Op.131 Phantasie. Again, this spirit of freedom and fantasy is beautifully caught - I like the description in the very good liner written by Jessica Duchen: “Schumann continually conjures the illusion of free-flowing improvisation”. Graffin’s performance perfectly enshrines this ideal. Although recorded ‘live’, there is little if any audience noise and no applause. As mentioned, the auditorium’s resonance is damped down to beneficial effect. The recording is not of demonstration quality - throughout the entire disc Graffin is not recorded with as sheerly beautiful a tone as other engineers and discs have found him to possess. But of course, that is a relative term - this is still supremely accomplished playing.

So a disc of two halves, a strangely disappointing Mendelssohn juxtaposed against very impressive Schumann.

Nick Barnard



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