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Antonin DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Violin Concerto in A minor Op.53 (1879-1882) [33:04] Aram KHACHATURIAN (1903-1978)
Violin Concerto (1940) [40:18]
Rachel Barton-Pine (violin)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Teddy Abrams
rec. 2018, RSNO Centre, Glasgow AVIE AV2411 [73:22]
Rachel Barton-Pine is one of my very favourite violinists. There are a number of reasons for this but, in essence, it is her fusion of rock-solid yet scintillating technique allied to brilliant musicianship as well as intelligent and stimulating programming. The liner mentions that she has recorded 39 discs which, by definition, covers the bulk of the core violin repertoire as well as many fascinating rarities. Previously her albums have often been an interesting juxtaposition of the familiar and the rare. Here, although the coupling is unusual, each of the two concerti are well-known. The reason for this is alluded to in Barton-Pine's informative liner note. Apparently the booked sessions were to be used for a completely different project - although what that was is not mentioned. Very late on, her conductor /partner dropped out forcing Barton-Pine, at little notice, to substitute these concerti - as well as someone to conduct. I notice that the copyright for these recordings belongs to Barton-Pine herself with the label Avie acting as distributors. So although Barton-Pine argues reasonably that there is an affinity between the works since both reveal composers drawing on their national musical roots for melodic inspiration, the reality is that these were two works that could be worked up to recording standard at short notice. Certainly the quality of Barton-Pine's playing is as fine as ever and she performs with all her usual authority and skill.
Likewise the Royal Scottish National Orchestra are predictably fine and, with a trusty production team of Andrew Keener producing and Simon Eadon engineering, this is a handsome-sounding disc. I do not know the work of conductor Teddy Abrams and my observation here is that his interpretations are solid and secure but not especially characterful. In her liner Barton-Pine outlines the slightly tortured path of the creation of Dvořák's Violin Concerto. He started writing this in 1879 for Joseph Joachim. Dvořák was still quite early on in his international composing career and clearly the promotion of a work of his by the world's leading violinist would open doors around the musical world for him. Unfortunately, Joachim had a rather conservative approach which meant he tried to alter aspects of the work to suit his taste. Three years dragged by with Joachim still suggesting rewrites - the fact that Dvořák was still open to these underlining the importance to him of Joachim's seal of approval; which he ultimately never got, the work being publicly premiered in 1883 by František Ondříček. In her liner, Barton-Pine writes that the concerto; "demands a fullness of tone typical of German Romantic music..." and that is certainly the style she deploys. Perhaps that is part of the Joachim legacy/imprint on the work but I have to say I do not think that it is the only approach to this work. Indeed my usual/preferred versions - Joseph Swensen with The Scottish Chamber Orchestra and a superb DVD concert performance by Ivan Zenaty with Jiři Bělohlávek conducting the Prague Symphony Orchestra both favour a lighter approach than Barton-Pine. Swensen, playing as well as conducting, gets a leaner tighter sound from his orchestra than Abrams does from the RSNO which, to my ear, helps underline the folk-dance elements of the music as well as the many out and out virtuoso passages. Barton-Pine is clearly a more virtuosic 'big' player, so her style certainly suits her approach but at a push I prefer a lighter touch in this music.
In the companion work on this CD - the brash and boldly coloured Khachaturian Concerto - Barton-Pine's musical personality and technical brilliance shine through. The RSNO recorded the work early in their fruitful collaboration with Neeme Jarvi for Chandos with violinist Lydia Mordkovich. It is a measure of Barton-Pine's playing that Mordkovich sounds harder worked by the Oistrakh-inspired solo part than does Barton-Pine who tosses it off with exactly the right combination of athletic bravura and sinuous sensuality. The Chandos disc is now nearly 30 years old but still sounds very fine - this is exactly the kind of score that found Jarvi in his element and the orchestra respond with a characterful and muscular performance that is more engaging than the perfectly good but slightly more measured 2019 interpretation. There is an argument that this is Khachaturian's most successful all-round work where he finds an ideal balance between folk-inflected melodies and rhythms and classical concerto form. I do feel the orchestra needs to embrace the near-gaudy brilliance of the writing and risk brashness at one extreme and sentiment at the other. Another fairly recent performance I enjoyed a lot is from violinist Catherine Manoukian and the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra. Their accompaniment is just a tad more alert with cross-rhythms dancing and muscular. There is a good example in the finale where the violinist plays a variant on the main theme against a typically surging counter melody in the celli [track 6 8:16 on this new disc]. Abrams allows his RSNO celli to 'accompany' Barton-Pine. In contrast another Armenian performance - this time the TV & Radio SO with violinist Ruben Agaronyan vie with each other for musical dominance – it’s a moment of pure brilliance by Khachaturian who wrote at the time of composition that the melodies for this work were pouring out of him faster than he could write them down; which is exactly how it sounds with Agaronyan.
But again, one does return to the sheer skill of Barton-Pine's playing - in the same finale she plays with cross-rhythm accenting that is a vivacious delight. Likewise her playing of the Oistrakh cadenza in the first movement is as fine as I have ever heard. The Keener/Eadon production is reliably good as is the orchestral playing. Barton-Pine's liner note (in English, French and German) is appealingly personal and also full of useful detail and information. So if the concerti themselves appeal, this is a wholly enjoyable coupling of two fine works with Rachel Barton-Pine in good form throughout. However both works exist with more individual and nuanced orchestral accompaniments.