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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Concerto for violin and string orchestra in d minor, Op. posth., MWVo3 (1822) [25:32]
Concerto for violin, piano, and orchestra, MWVo4 (1823) [40:36]
Solomiya Ivakhiv (violin), Antonio Pompa-Baldi (piano)
Slovak National Symphony Orchestra/Theodore Kuchar
rec. 15-19 November 2017, The Fatra House of Art, Ziliny, Slovakia. DDD.
Reviewed as lossless (wav) press preview.
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 95733 [66:11]

Brilliant Classics are taking on the mantle of Naxos in many ways: offering decent, often more than decent performances and recordings at a reasonable price, and frequently presenting us with unfamiliar material. If the price of both Naxos and Brilliant, the latter ranging from 4.50 to around 7.50, is a little higher than when the former’s CDs were on offer in Woolworths for 3.99, and if the performers are often unfamiliar to Western audiences, no matter if the results are worth hearing. In this case, the conductor, Theodore Kuchar has released several recordings for a variety of labels, though the orchestra is less well-known, the soloists even less so.

In this case, though Brilliant Classics are not breaking completely new ground, as on several recent releases, the present recording brings us Mendelssohn’s other violin concertos – yes there are others, though neglected, just as there are other Bruch concertos which the composer despaired of ever receiving a fair hearing. Both the concertos recorded here are youthful works, but they, like the String Symphonies, prove that Mendelssohn could give Mozart more than a run for his money when it came to being an adolescent genius – and in making life less than easy for the soloists in particular. For those who have been collecting the recent Chandos series of Mendelssohn symphonies and already have the Violin Concerto, this would be a useful supplement.

There are, surprisingly, several recording of the early d-minor Violin Concerto, not least from Alina Ibragimova with the OAE and Vladimir Jurowski (Hyperion CDA57795). Attractive as that is, not everyone will want the coupling, the oft-recorded Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in e-minor in a performance which for David A McConnell failed to displace the top recommendations for this familiar work – review. I thought that Ibragimova made a strong case for both works – DL News 2012/20 – and Geoffrey Molyneux was largely in agreement in the next edition – review.

The following year, Naxos coupled the two violin concertos on a recording which, while no match for the Hyperion, offers a reasonable budget-price alternative – DL News 2013/4.

It’s not with either of these that I have chosen to compare the new Brilliant Classics, however, but with the exact rival coupling on Signum Classics from Tamsin Waley-Cohen (violin) with the Orchestra of the Swan and David Curtis, with Huw Watkins (piano) in the Double Concerto, recorded live in 2013 (SIGCD342). The comparison is especially apt because we seem not to have reviewed that recording. It’s also a fair comparison in that, though the Signum CD is full-price, the download from hyperion-records.co.uk, with pdf booklet, can be obtained in CD-quality sound for 6.99, less than the price of the Brilliant CD from some dealers, and considerably less than the 9.99 being asked by some providers for the lossless download of the new recording. Even the superior 24-bit Signum download from Hyperion costs only 7.85, though, again, considerably more from other providers.

Both recordings place the d-minor Violin Concerto first, which is surely correct; in just one year, the composer had developed in leaps and bounds from a work which retains much of the classical spirit to one in which the romantic composer to be is more in evidence. The Double Concerto is one of the longest concertos ever composed, but it retains its appeal all the way through.

Not that the earlier work, unknown until Yehudi Menuhin performed it in 1951, is anything but inspired for a 13-year-old. Both performances offer fine solo playing, with soloist and conductor uniting to present the music in an attractive light. Neither the Orchestra of the Swan1 nor the Slovak National Orchestra has a top reputation, but both offer support very much more than adequate. The main difference lies in the two approaches to the second movement; it’s marked andante, and Waley-Cohen and The Swan maintain what seems pretty well the right pace for that marking, moving the music along without skating over the lyrical wistfulness that imbues it and which prefigures in many respects the same movement of the mature e-minor concerto.

Ibragimova and Jurowski, though a little slower, agree that less than eight minutes is about right for this movement. Henry Raudales and the Munich Radio Orchestra on BR Klassik force the pace somewhat (900324, with String Symphonies 1-6). On Brilliant Classics, however, it’s taken at a significantly slower pace than any of these: on paper, at least, 11:11 for this movement looks as if all concerned may be unduly squeezing out the emotion. In practice, I do think the tempo too slow – almost funereal at the beginning – which leads me to a distinct preference for the Signum recording. I found my mind wandering a little before the end of the movement on Brilliant Classics and a sprightly and enjoyable account of the finale didn’t entirely compensate.

In the second movement of the Double Concerto, too, again marked andante, the tempo on the new recording is significantly slower than on Signum, though the difference is less evident here. There’s more scope for lingering awhile in this concerto, and both recordings are more or less in line with the view of this movement offered by Kristian Bezuidenhout (fortepiano), Gottfried von der Goltz (violin) and the Freiburger Barockorchester (Harmonia Mundi HMC902082, with Piano Concerto in a minor – review).

That period-instrument recording is rather special; I wouldn’t go to the stake for HIPP in this music, but I did enjoy hearing it, as downloaded in 24-bit sound, with pdf booklet, from eclassical.com. At around 15 or $19, the 24-bit is a little expensive, but all except the most hardened anti-fortepiano brigade should at least consider it, especially if the early piano concerto appeals more than the Signum or Brilliant coupling. It took me a while to be won over to the fortepiano, but it was performers like Bezuidenhout in Mendelssohn and Brautigam (in the Mozart concertos for BIS) who proved that the instrument need not sound like old tin cans or skate over the finer parts of the music.

As with the Ibragimova recording of the early Violin Concerto, where you will almost certainly have at least one recording of its more mature sibling, another recording of the Double Concerto on a BIS SACD or 24-bit download may be ruled out by the coupling of the well-known Octet. (BIS-1984 – review DL News 2013/8). Otherwise, that’s well worth considering, not least for an account of the andante which keeps the music moving without stifling the emotional content – but, then, all the recordings that I have mentioned, including the new Brilliant Classics, capture the emotion pretty well. And the new recording offers accounts of the outer movements as lively as any.

The new recording sounds very good in lossless, CD-quality sound, but so do the Signum, Harmonia Mundi, BIS and Hyperion records which I have mentioned, all also available in superior 24-bit format. Some Brilliant Classics booklets are pretty rudimentary affairs; not so this latest release.

I’ve been asked by the distributors to consider this for my Recordings of the Year list. It won’t quite make that; I enjoyed hearing it, but was even more pleased that it led me to discover the Signum (both works) and Harmonia Mundi (Double Concerto) recordings. On CD, those with a tight budget won’t be let down by the new recording, but I recommend paying a little more for the Signum – and downloaders will find even the 24-bit version of that for little more than the Brilliant Classics CD.

1 Ralph Moore thought Waley-Cohen’s solo playing let down by listless orchestral support from the Orchestra of the Swan in VW and Elgar – review. That’s not the case with the Mendelssohn.

Brian Wilson



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