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Einojuhani RAUTAVAARA (1928-2016)
Violin Concerto (1977) [25:36]
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Violin Concerto in D minor Op.47 (1904) [32:48]
Tobias Feldmann (violin)
Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège/Jean-Jacques Kantorow
rec. Salle Philharmonique de Liège, Belgium, 2017
ALPHA CLASSICS 357 [58:28]

This is such an interesting juxtaposition of a famous and a lesser-known Finnish violin concerto of the 20th Century that it makes you wonder why it has not been tried before. A near-equal surprise is how rarely the Rautavaara concerto has been recorded at all. This is my first encounter with this beautiful work, but as far as I can tell it is only the third recording after its premiere on disc from Ondine in 1997 with violinist Elmar Oliveira and then seven years later on BIS from Jaakko Kuusisto.

The disc opens with the Rautavaara concerto and it impresses from the opening bars. Cast in two near equal-length movements marked Tranquillo and Energico it opens with a hypnotically rocking figure in the orchestra over which the violin has long-limbed lyrical lines. This mood of tranquillity is soon disrupted by a series of dramatic interactions with the orchestra. Here the violin soloist is Tobias Feldmann and he plays with a remarkably sweet and beautifully fluid tone and effortless virtuosity that seems absolutely right for this music which focuses on the singing qualities of the instrument. As with many of Rauatavaara's works the influence of birdsong can be heard, and again Feldmann captures the capriciousness of the writing beautifully. The Alpha-Classics recording is very good too balancing the soloist believably within the orchestral soundscape while allowing all the detail and richness of Rautavaara's writing to register. As I mentioned, I do not know the other recordings to be able to make direct comparisons, but it strikes me that Jean-Jacques Kantorow and the Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège provide very sympathetic and alert accompaniment.

According to the uncredited liner the concerto was completed in New York in 1977 and the second movement “pays tribute to the constantly changing unending current of sound that emanates from Fifth Avenue”. Certainly, it makes for a striking contrast to the still rapture of much of the first movement. After a dynamic opening two minutes the music subsides into an extended passage of gentle reflection, with the soloist silent for just about the only time in the work. When the violin does rejoin after the four-minute mark, he continues the mood of pensive reflection which soon becomes a powerful cadenza, part of which the composer requires the soloist to improvise – the liner here includes a picture of Feldmann’s sketches. In the best tradition of such passages, Feldmann revisits material and moods from earlier in the work – and very effectively he does this, too. Slowly, as the orchestra rejoins, the tension and momentum begin to build again. The liner refers to this as specifically the New York- inspired pages and quotes the composer as saying: “I knew the solo violin had to live its last moments passionately, persistently piercing the orchestral texture right to the end”. Certainly, the closing pages have the character of a moto perpetuo with bars of running semi quavers in the solo part juxtaposed against jagged orchestral writing. It is all very well played here although I did wonder if a greater sense of wildness could be achieved – the control and precision is superb but at the expense of the passion the Rautavaara quote above references. But all in all a very enjoyable piece beautifully played.

In 1955 the grand old man of Finnish music, Sibelius himself was asked to nominate an up- and-coming composer to receive a scholarship in his name. His unhesitating choice was Rautavaara. The openings of the two concerti are curiously aligned too, with the soloist having long lyrical melodies played against chilly and sparse accompaniments. The Sibelius concerto has become probably the most recorded and most popular 20th Century violin concerto. As such, it has received the attention of every major soloist of the last one hundred years. Feldmann’s playing can stand comparison with the best – again he draws from his 1769 Gagliano violin a stunning range of tone, from whispered delicacy to richly sonorous power. His poise and clarity even in the passages of most demanding virtuosity is of the highest order. The orchestral accompaniment from Kantarow (of course a great violin virtuoso himself) is quite direct, perhaps a little unyielding for my taste but with an excellent dynamic range and alertness to the demands of the soloist. There is a degree of objectivity in the orchestral accompaniment which seems slightly at odds with the high Romanticism of Feldmann’s playing but it could be argued that the one provides an effective foil for the other and certainly the actual playing of the Liège orchestra is very impressive on an individual and collective level. The closing minute or so of the opening movement will give the listener a good sense of the style on offer here; Feldmann makes light work of the brutally hard solo passages with the orchestra providing neat support, which somehow does not quite generate the sheer dynamic energy I have heard elsewhere. Again, it is worth giving credit to the quality of the Alpha Classics engineering in capturing the warmth and acoustic quality of the Salle Philharmonique - the sound throughout this disc is first class.

The central Adagio di molto is again beautifully played, with Feldmann drawing a stunning sound from high up the G string of his violin. The hushed playing of the orchestra is very well caught but again I feel the tutti playing does not follow the same emotional arc as the soloist. This approach certainly avoids the criticism that the piece can become almost sentimental in this central movement and it allows the listener to focus on the excellence of the solo playing but I would like the orchestral playing to be more unleashed. The quality of the recording really allows the overlapping rhythms that open the closing Allegro ma non tanto to register very well indeed, as do the snarling stopped horns just a few pages in. Kantarow’s approach also pays dividends here, in giving the music a more playful character than it often has, helped in no small way by the fact that both soloist and orchestra keep the rhythm tightly dotted, thereby underlining the dance-like mood. This movement is the most completely successful of the three because of the closer alignment of solo and accompanying approaches. Feldmann’s ability, again, to make such technical light work of the solo writing helps enormously, imbuing the music with as festive and light-hearted a mood as I have ever heard – it is an approach that works very well and one that brings the disc to a rousing conclusion.

So, two fine performances of two fine concerti. Connoisseurs of violin playing should hear Feldmann’s performances for their all-round technical brilliance and their refined musical sensitivity. Overall this version of the Sibelius would not displace other favourites of mine, but it is still very good especially in the closing movement. The good engineering and neat playing of the Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège add to the pleasure. With a running time just under an hour this is not the most generously filled of discs but the programming is logical and well balanced so filling the remaining/available twenty minutes or so would probably be a false economy. Very enjoyable.

Nick Barnard



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