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Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1936) [35:45]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77 (1878) [41:30]
Jack Liebeck (violin)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Gourlay
rec. 2019 at BBC Maida Vale Studios, London

The Schoenberg Violin Concerto is one of the composer’s more inscrutable creations for first-time listeners, but, take heart, because this performance elucidates its music better than any other I know of. This is also one of the finest accounts of the concerto that I have encountered over the years, not just because of its clarity of detail but for its overall realization of the music. It was brilliantly conceived by British violinist Jack Liebeck and his collaborator conductor Andrew Gourlay, who gets splendid playing from the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Liebeck (b. 1980), the 2010 winner of a Classical Brit award as Young British Classical Performer of the Year, has already achieved considerable acclaim in his relatively brief career. He regularly appears at major concert venues across the globe and turns out many recordings in a broad range of repertory from J. S. Bach to contemporary music. Here, in the Schoenberg concerto, he casts greater light on the work’s often dense textures and very challenging serial writing with quite broad tempos and his incisive interpretive approach. He effectively captures the grim drama and darkness of the first movement main theme, overlooking none of the conflict that emerges in the later exchanges between violin and orchestra. His tone is strong and accurate, his phrasing always sensitive to the emotional character of the music. Gourlay partners him well, finding the right balance among competing lines in the orchestra.

Liebeck’s warm and rather sunlit account of the second movement main theme plays up the melody’s singing character. The music contrasts nicely with the troubled moods of the opening panel. Yet, Liebeck and company do not shortchange the conflict that soon follows: indeed, the music brims with dark omen and tension, especially in the faster, more driven episodes. In the finale, Schoenberg once again presents the listener with ambivalence, as playfulness and good-hearted mischief often yield to conflict and restlessness. Here, Liebeck and Gourlay fully grasp the expressive nature of the pointed, shifting character of the music. Liebeck’s expressive manner and tone are remarkably adaptable. His sound becomes raspy and harsh when called for, lean or powerful when needed, or lyrically inclined, especially when the first movement main theme is recalled. Aided by excellent sound reproduction, this is clearly a stellar account of this extremely difficult concerto.

The Brahms Concerto is also given a fairly expansive treatment here, with tempi moderate to broad in each of the three movements. That said, the performance never sounds laggardly in any way, but rather is quite vital and spirited. Following the lengthy orchestral introduction in the first movement, Liebeck enters in an appropriately dramatic fashion, the notes crisp and well accented, and filled with tension and drama (the violin music deriving from the main theme). Throughout most of this lengthy panel, Liebeck chooses to milk the lyrical side of the music, especially the lilting, rather waltz-like theme that seems to brim with yearning. There follows plenty of drama and tension from both soloist and orchestra in their brilliant execution of the intense development section. Liebeck delivers a superb account of the cadenza, which is actually the work of violinist Fritz Kreisler.

The second movement is rife with lushness here: the oboe states the gorgeous main theme in a full-throated way. Its tones ring out with greater resonance than usual; Liebeck’s subsequent treatment, in contrast, is sweeter and warmer. The whole movement is lovely and both soloist and orchestra are fully convincing. The finale launches with a robust treatment of the main theme by Liebeck, but he is also a bit finicky in his rubato, accenting and emphatic manner to clarify the playing. Still, his way with the music here and throughout the movement imparts an epic manner, giving the music a bolder, heftier character, which actually works quite well. The orchestra seconds his bigger approach. On the whole, this account of the finale is most effective and rather different from most other versions. In the end, this performance of the Brahms Concerto must be assessed as one of the work’s stronger renditions, not least because of the orchestra’s fine contribution and the excellent, well balanced sound reproduction.

As for the competition in these works, in the Schoenberg Liana Isakadze (Melodiya, from 1981; reissued 2014) has an excellent version coupled with the Sibelius concerto; Pierre Amoyal (Erato, from 1984) is also quite good, though coupled with a Peter Serkin version of the Schoenberg piano concerto that features a backwardly miked piano; and, if you can find either, Zvi Zeitlin (originally DG, 1971) and Wolfgang Marschner (Vox, 1957), both coupled with different versions of the piano concerto by Alfred Brendel, are also convincing though much older efforts. But here is the verdict: without doubt, Liebeck is absolutely the best in terms of sheer clarity, and at least as good as the others in overall performance. Moreover, his sound reproduction is state of the art, better than the competition’s. Go with Liebeck.

In the Brahms, the competition is much thicker and includes excellent versions by Gluzman (BIS), Bell (Decca), Ferras (DG), Kremer (DG), and Yang (Naxos – see a review). Liebeck clearly stands with the better versions, and because he takes a rather different interpretive approach, his is eminently worth hearing. Both performances then are rather special in their very different ways.

Robert Cummings

Previous review: Roy Westbrook

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