Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61 (1806)
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
The Lark Ascending (1914)
Sinfonietta Riga/Thomas Gould (violin)
rec. live, 2014, The Great Guild Hall, Riga
EDITION EDN1058 
The recent Vaughan Williams anniversary led me to acquaint myself with both this 2015 release and the famous Boult/Hugh Bean account of The Lark Ascending and I was surprised to discover that the former had not been reviewed on these pages. The two performances could hardly be more contrasting, yet I love them equally and play them according to my mood and whim. While Bean and Boult’s recording is lush and loving – fully “Romantic” in affect – Gould adopts a sparer, more ethereal manner; the difference is that of between a mellow, golden Tokay wine and sparkling spring water. That same contrast may be applied to Gould’s playing of Beethoven’s warmest and most “human” and humane work, his violin concerto, and favourite versions by Mutter or Ferras with Karajan.
He is sparing in his use of vibrato and the closeness of the recording allows us to hear how often he delicately and deliberately produces a thin, dry, ascetic tone under which you can faintly hear the scrape of the horsehair on the string of his 1782 Guadagnini instrument, but that whispering effect is not over-used and he is perfectly capable of creating a full, opulent sound. (That same proximity also reveals a sniffing intake of breath before phrases which might irk the fastidious – among which I sometimes number myself but I am not so bothered by it here.) Despite this being live, the playing is technically flawless – there is some wonderful double-stopping in the Lark – and the recording conveys the rapt atmosphere which can sometimes obtain in a live performance. I don’t know how the engineers managed to make Gould sound more distanced in the final bars as the skylark twirls aloft into the ether, but the effect is magical. His poise, elegance and restraint might be too refined for anyone wanting more “heart-on-sleeve” indulgence but for me there is no lack of emotion in his execution – and, as I say above, we sometimes want to hear a different approach.
A further novelty is Gould’s use of the unfamiliar cadenzas Beethoven wrote for his piano version of the concerto, here in a kind of reverse-engineered back-formation, re-transcribed for violin. Those cadenzas are a little bizarre – especially the slightly crazy dialogue – or is it an argument? - between the solo violin and drums but they certainly provide additional interest. Otherwise, the playing throughout is cool and lucid but never too detached; the melodies really sing.
The Sinfonietta Riga chamber orchestra consists of only 34 players but does not sound under-powered. There is some especially lovely horn, flute and woodwind playing in the Lark and their rapport with Gould, who also directing, is palpable; this is a real partnership.
November 25, 2022