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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-47) Violin Concerto [No 2] in E minor, Op.64 [28.12] Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-76) Violin Concerto, Op.16 [33.25] Peter Ilich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-93)
Sérénade mélancolique, Op.26 [8.44]
Sebastian Bohren (violin)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Litton
rec. 2017, The Friary, Liverpool RCA RED SEAL 19075871142 [70.21]
There was a time when recordings of ‘the’ Mendelssohn violin concerto came almost invariably on LP coupled with ‘the’ Bruch concerto on the other side, and this made logical sense in many ways. Both were innovative when first written, re-inventing the concerto form in a manner that broke new ground, not least in linking the opening and slow movements and by integrating the traditional solo cadenza into the body of the first movement. Both also represented the peak of their respective composer’s essays in the form of the violin concerto, with an earlier Mendelssohn work relegated to the field of juvenilia and two later Bruch essays in the medium cast into an outer darkness from which they only occasionally emerged as part of complete cycles of the composer’s multifarious violin works. With the advent of CD record companies became more adventurous in their approach to both concertos, experimenting with various couplings; but this is as far as I know the first time that Mendelssohn’s and Britten’s have been linked in this manner. The pairing works excellently, since Britten’s early violin concerto takes a similarly experimental approach to the matter of form, its cadenza closely linked into the overall structure (here the second movement) and a linked finale which steps well outside the normal parameters of a ‘simple’ display piece.
Not that there is anything ‘simple’ in Sebastian Bohren’s approach even to such a well-known warhorse as the Mendelssohn concerto. He frequently perks even the most jaded listener’s ear with subtleties of phrasing and delivery which never fail to delight and often surprise with their natural correctness even at the moments when they might appear most wayward. He is matched with equal delicacy by Andrew Litton and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, with nuances of interpretation that exactly match the approach of the soloist. This is a performance that sparkles with life, from the very opening timpani heartbeats which launch the impulsive rhythms forwards.
This issue takes a similarly fresh look at the Britten score written in 1939, which has since its belated first recording under the composer back in 1971 established itself as a fairly regular participant in the standard repertory. Bohren and Litton together even contrive to make Britten’s quixotic decision to silence the soloist for an extensive period during the finale to allow for the development of an orchestral passacaglia, which can look so peculiar in live concert performance but here sounds entirely integral to the whole. The quietly spun final passage has a haunting beauty in the hands of Bohren, matched by the incredibly long-sustained orchestral woodwind chord.
And Bohren brings an equal sense of stillness to the dark-hued tones of Tchaikovsky’s Sérénade mélancolique. No formal innovations here, simply an outpouring of sustained lyricism which as Peter Avis points out in the booklet notes attracted the unlikely admiration of Britten himself. And again the accompaniment by Litton and the orchestra in the closing bars is absolutely exquisitely delivered.
My only quibble with this excellently engineered release might come from the booklet, which contains a great deal of biographical information about all the featured composers as well as the featured performers, but says very little about the innovations that both Mendelssohn and Britten made in the formal construction of their concertos. It is not helpful either for the writer to conclude his description of the early performing history of the Tchaikovsky serenade with pointing out “echoes” of the opera Vakula the Smith without detailing what these are intended to be – or indeed their significance, if there is one. (These notes, although not the biographies, also come in German translation and the booklet is well-provided with session photographs.)
But, as I say, a minor quibble with an issue which brings lustre to everyone concerned including the engineer Andrew Keener whom Bohren specifically thanks in a booklet note for “helping me to set up this recording”. Admirers of the soloist will rush to acquire such a superb representation of his art, but lovers of the well-known Mendelssohn concerto should also seize the opportunity to make the acquaintance of the Britten with which they may well be unfamiliar. As I say, this coupling is so far as I know unique in the catalogues.