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American Concertos
Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Serenade for Violin and Orchestra after Plato’s Symposium (1954) [31:51]
Erich Wolfgang KORNOLD (1897-1957)
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D, op. 35 (1946) [26:47]
Miklós RÓZSA (1907-1995)
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra Op. 24 (1953) [31:56]
West Side Story: Symphonic Dances (1960) [25:10]
Baiba Skride (violin)
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra/Santtu-Matias Rouvali
rec. 2017/18, Gothenburg Concert Hall, Sweden; Tampere Hall, Finland
ORFEO C932182A [58:43 + 58:38]

I imagine that this collection has been put together with at least one eye on the Bernstein centenary since he is the only composer represented by two works. I have to say that the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story sit slightly oddly in a programme that is otherwise given over to concerted works for violin and orchestra. To be frank, the West Side Story performance is a bit disappointing. Santtu-Matias Rouvali and the Tampere Philharmonic play the music well enough and some of the movements, such as ‘Somewhere’ and the touching Finale come off well. However, the ‘Prologue’ feels a bit safe and careful; I missed the swagger and menace of the Jets and Sharks which is viscerally evident in the composer’s own 1961 recording with the New York Philharmonic (Sony Classical SMK 63085). In fairness, the present performance improves once the tempo picks up later in the piece. ‘Mambo’ is another relative let-down. Heard in isolation it’s not bad, but anyone who has heard Lenny’s 1961 rendition will surely feel that Rouvali doesn’t invest the music with the same driven daemonic energy that Bernstein brings to it; the young Finn’s tempo is a bit cautious by comparison and, crucially, the music lacks the bite that the NYPO brings to the proceedings. ‘Cool’ is quite well done but Bernstein himself makes the music a lot slinkier. As I listened, I was left with two thoughts: one was that the performance is too ‘safe’; the other was to wish that instead of West Side Story we’d been treated to a performance by Baiba Skride of another American violin concerto – the Barber would have been the obvious choice.

Actually, though the collection is entitled ‘American Concertos’ there aren’t really many – if any – “obvious choices” here. Of the three concerted works only one is by a native American though the Korngold and Rózsa concertos were written in the USA. I’m especially glad that Baiba Skride has selected the Rózsa concerto since it’s too little-known – I freely confess that I don’t know it as well as I should – though it has fared reasonably well in the recording studio with at least three modern versions, by Jennifer Pike, Robert McDuffie and Anastasia Khitruk. It was premiered – and first recorded by Jascha Heifetz, so it’s no surprise that the concerto is a virtuoso score. I find the first movement somewhat reminiscent of Walton, both in its passages of bittersweet lyricism and the episodes of razor-sharp fast music. It’s a searching examination of the soloist’s technique, not least in the extended cadenza. I love the way that the cadenza yields to a mellow reflective passage for the soloist and orchestra. The slow movement is gorgeous and exploits Skride’s lyric gifts to the full. It’s unsurprising that many years late Rózsa should have raided this movement when he came to write his score for the film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970). The finale is full of vitality and Skride and her colleagues make a fine job of it. The recordings of the concerto that I’ve referenced above are all included on all-Rózsa discs. I hope the fact that this splendid new performance is included in a mixed programme will win new friends for the work.

Skride is no less successful in the Korngold concerto. She’s not the first violinist to couple it with the Bernstein Serenade: Liza Ferschtman did likewise (review) and there’s plenty more competition in the catalogue, too. I don’t think anyone investing in Baiba Skride’s performance will be disappointed. Her account of the gorgeously lyrical first movement is wonderful; the sheer quality of her playing leads the listener on most seductively. Here the orchestral textures are super. Though it’s the cantabile playing that particularly catches the ear, the virtuosity, not least in the cadenza (5:12 – 6:05) is no less impressive. Skride gives a bewitching reading of the lush second movement. Korngold’s music may strike some as over-sweet but I love the subtlety and tenderness of this movement, especially when it’s played as ravishingly as here. This marvellous performance is completed by a dashing and sparkling rendition of the finale.

The Bernstein Serenade is a most interesting conception: a concerto in all but names but cast in five movements and inspired by Plato’s Symposium. Skride impresses from the start of the first movement, ‘Phaedrus – Pausanias’ with her lovely, pure tone and the expressive quality of her playing. When the music moves from Lento to Allegro marcato I admired not just the solo playing but also the definition and depth of tone of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra. In the third movement, ‘Eryximachus’, the tempo is suitably nimble and both the soloist and orchestra rise to the virtuoso demands of the score. The fourth movement, an Adagio, is ‘Agathon’. The opening is delicate and very poised in this performance; Skride spins an eloquent line. Later, the music becomes very intense and passionate. The final movement, ‘Socrates – Alcibiades’ begins with a powerful orchestral opening after which there’s a notable duet between the soloist and a solo cello. That’s very well done here and I think it’s a pity that the admirable cellist was not named. The Allegro molto explodes into life (4:03) and is delivered with a fine, blues-inflected swing. Arguably Bernstein spins out his finale a little too much but, on the other hand, the music suggests that those Greek philosophers knew how to party!

This is a most enjoyable collection. I’ve heard and admired Baiba Skride in a couple of previous releases: including Brahms and a pairing of Stravinsky and Frank Martin. This set of American concertos sees her widen her recorded repertoire still further and her performances of all three are highly successful. She’s very well supported by the young Finnish conductor, Santtu-Matias Rouvali who here appears with the two orchestras of which he’s currently Music Director. The Gothenburg Symphony does the honours on the first disc while disc two features the Tampere Philharmonic. Both orchestras make first rate contributions. The Orfeo recordings are excellent, presenting the performances in clear, detailed sound that has the soloist nicely balanced and yet allows plenty of orchestral detail to come through. Christoph Schlüren’s notes are very useful.

John Quinn


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