Janine Jansen, violin; Baroque Ensemble. Decca B0005298-02.
First, some minor quibbles: I tend to be suspicious of album covers that put the artist's name above the composer's and in a typeface two or three time bigger, as is the case here. It makes me wonder if perhaps the record company isn't hyping the artist at the expense of the music. Next, I'm equally leery when the artist's picture appears on more pages of the booklet insert than text does. In this case, Janine Jansen is a very attractive young violinist and her picture in a low-cut evening gown appears fully eight times--on the front and back booklet cover, five times within, and again on the back of the CD. Then, one can't help noticing that the disc includes only the four "Seasons" concertos, totalling less than forty minutes, which is short measure for a full-price release.
These concerns aside, Ms. Jansen does play lovely music in a most skillful manner, and if it's only Antonio Vivaldi's The Four Seasons you're looking for, this new issue makes a worthwhile consideration. The several things it has going for it include a good performance, an unusually small ensemble, and a period-instruments approach.
Taken one at a time, Ms. Jansen, playing a Stradivari on loan to her from the Stradivari Society of Chicago, plays the concertos in a subtle, polished, subdued, and sensitive manner. You might say it is a more feminine approach than most, if that term doesn't sound too sexist. What I mean is that while she certainly performs with vigor when the music demands it, she handles the softer moments more delicately than one commonly hears. I found her interpretation quite refreshing, but some listeners may prefer a more robust reading. Backing her up, we do not find the usual full-scale or even chamber orchestra, but a select handful of musicians, about eight of them. This makes for a most intimate performance, with textures that are cleaner than in most other recordings. And the accompanists also use period instruments, so the effect is, I imagine, similar to what a listener in Vivaldi's day might have heard performed in a modest environment.
Finally, Decca's sound is among the smoothest and most refined I have heard. Indeed, all of the six or more comparison Seasons I had on hand tended to sound a little overly bright next to the Jansen recording. The instruments appear well spread out across the sound stage; the solo violin rings out sweetly and naturally, without any undue strain; and the ambient acoustic is pleasantly realistic. I was a little unsure about this disc when I first started listening to it, but the more I heard from it, the more I liked it. While I wouldn't recommend Jansen's disc as an absolute first choice, it is certainly a strong contender.
About the Author
I've been listening to classical music most of my life, starting with the classical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first classical recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor. Today, I'm retired from teaching and using a pair of VMPS RM40s. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (moviemet.com, formerly DVDTOWN) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.
When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.
So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.
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