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Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
Violin Concerto in D major Op.35 (1947) [26:45]
Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Serenade for solo violin, strings, harp and percussion after Plato's "Symposium" (1954) [31:14]
Liza Ferschtman (violin)
Prague Symphony Orchestra/Jiří Malát (Korngold)
Het Gelders Orkest/Christian Vásquez (Bernstein)
rec. 2017, Musis, Arnhem, Netherlands (Bernstein); live, BASF-Feierbendhaus, Ludwigshafen, Germany (Korngold)

Whisper it who dares, the Korngold Violin Concerto is almost becoming standard repertoire. Certainly the “more korn than gold” school of criticism will have you believe that the composer was at best a Romantic throw-back and at worst a pedlar of sentimental kitsch. I would like to think that the increasing number of performances and recordings of all of Korngold's works – but especially this concerto – shows that both the public and performers are accepting his works for the remarkable pieces they are. And much the same can be said of Bernstein; it is all too easy to mark his compositional card as being ‘just’ the composer of West Side Story with a few other mildly embarrassing/easy on the ear works along the way. But the Serenade recorded here belies that and shows – as with Korngold – a composer who, for sure, had a populist touch but at the same time could produce music of real stature and worth.

So in that sense this makes for an interesting and valuable coupling; neither work is that rare in the modern catalogue but as far as I know their appearance on the same disc is unique. The only real ‘problem’ this coupling affords a collector is one of length: the two works alone coming in at under an hour’s worth of music. Dutch violinist Liza Ferschtman was previously unknown to me. Both performances were recorded live by Challenge Classics with different orchestras, conductors and venues albeit both in SA-CD multi-channel sound.

The Korngold comes first and sees the Prague Symphony Orchestra under Jiří Malát recorded in Germany. Ms. Ferschtman's biography is impressive and clearly she can play the violin very well but in this concerto competition is ferocious. But what is effective and impressive in this performance is the care with which Ferschtman follows the meticulously marked detail of the score while still maintaining the sense of rhapsodic freedom the work embodies. The downside of that care is that the orchestral playing – again fine in its own right – tips care over into careful. Critics and admirers of this score will focus on the same aspect of the work: its luxuriant scoring. Here the Prague Symphony Orchestra sound a fraction staid. They have also recorded this work with the remarkable Pavel Šporcl, and the Supraphon engineering provided a warmer orchestral bed as an accompaniment and also Šporcl somehow finds an extra element of fantasy. Of the live recordings I know, Ferschtman must also give way to Benjamin Schmid’s superb version recorded with the Vienna Philharmonic at the Salzburg Festival under the baton of Seji Ozawa. It strikes me that Schmid has the ideal tone and technique for this work. For sure he is rather distantly recorded in a generous acoustic, but he manages to combine the technical imperiousness of a Heifetz or latterly Gil Shaham but with the sentiment and sensitivity the work demands. He also observes tiny details in the score – as does Ferschtman – such as the heavily marked glissando in the 1st movement cadenza at figure 20 [track 1 5:20]; other fine players from Shaham to Znaider to Ehnes, Šporcl and even Heifetz himself literally smooth over this sobbing downward slide as though its one musical sweet-meat too far. I like the fact that since it has been so clearly and carefully marked by Korngld in the score Ferschtman observes it. This kind of attention to the detail of the score is repeated throughout the performance and does the soloist considerable credit; there is a sense of a very well prepared and affectionate interpretation.

The recording, allowing for the fact it is ‘live’ is good without being quite as revelatory in SA-CD as I had hoped it would be. I do like the way the solo part is clear without being overly spotlit but conversely there is not a great deal of air or acoustic allowed especially around the orchestra. For a live performance audience noise is effectively absent except for an immediate cry of bravo and applause retained at the end. I did find myself wondering if Malát’s fractionally staid approach leaves Ferschtman occasionally pulling on the musical reins. Especially in the closing Allegro assai vivace I prefer the extra devil-may-care, pell-mell chase music that both Šporcl and Schmid evoke. So in its own right a fine performance of the solo part but one that as a whole struggles to displace the best of the best.

The competition, as far as the Bernstein Serenade is concerned, is less intense. For sure fine versions exist from stellar violinists, such as Perlman or Stern or Kremer amongst others. On this new disc, Ferschtman is back in her home country with the Het Gelders Orkest under Christian Vásquez. This Serenade is one of Bernstein’s most overtly serious and indeed abstract works. The titles of the five movements derive from Plato’s Symposium but in effect these provide ‘character’ studies. According to the liner, the idea of assigning the names of the speakers from the symposium came late in the work’s creation; prior to that is was simply described as a ‘concerto’. It is probably a conscious interpretative choice by Ferschtman or the function of a different concert in a different space, but she chooses a more relaxed and sweet tone for this work. The orchestra too are recorded with greater warmth, slightly further back in a more generous acoustic too, to the benefit of the performance and the work. I previously reviewed this work in its first recorded incarnation with Bernstein conducting the soloist at the premiere by Isaac Stern in 1956, and it is measure of the quality of this new performance that it can be put alongside a recording of that stature. Indeed, I would say that overall for all the performers this is the better of the two works on this disc - and better recorded too. As with the Korngold, Ferschtman is a dynamic and powerful soloist but I like the extra degree of relaxed playfulness she has in her music-making here. This is especially apparent in the closing allegro molto vivace section named ‘Alcibiades’.

Indeed, I generally prefer this new version to the Ozawa/Boston SO recording with Perlman. Of course Perlman’s playing is quite superb but somehow Ferschtman is the more varied and playful across the entire work; it’s an impressive achievement. A more overtly muscular live version appeared on the front cover of the BBC Music Magazine by the excellent Anne Akiko Meyers with Ilan Volkov and the BBC Scottish SO. Technically again that is also a very remarkable ‘live’ performance and a very valid interpretation and one admirers of this work should seek out. But again, if forced to choose I would opt for this new disc for the extra degree of fantasy Ferschtman finds. The Challenge engineers have caught the balance between the orchestration of just strings and percussion and the soloist very well indeed. Again applause – and a more measured 'bravo' here – is retained. The more often I hear this work the more I think it is one of Bernstein’s finest absolute works. Although it lacks the obvious big melodic gestures that he often incorporated into even his most serious concert music, it shows the real compositional skill and craft he could deploy.

The English-only liner is reasonable, although with all the different performers, more space is dedicated to their biographies than the music - I would prefer it the other way around. A slightly tricky disc to recommend unreservedly; Ferschtman is clearly an excellent player and a thoughtful musician who seems to have been more at ease on the night she recorded the Bernstein than she was with the Korngold. But the Korngold performance still has insights and impressive passages, without offering enough to replace several other versions. Furthermore, the good but unremarkable recording of the Korngold does not help advance this performance’s case. However, the Bernstein interpretation must now sit close to the top of the pile of preferred versions. If the ‘empty’ twenty minutes on the disc could have been filled with another work that might well have tipped the scales further in the new disc’s favour.

So a considered welcome for this new disc - perhaps a recording that needs to be sampled before an investment is made.

Nick Barnard

A qualified welcome for this new disc; the Bernstein certainly gets a fine performance.


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