Bruch: Violin Concerto (SACD review)

Also Korngold: Violin Concerto; Chausson:  Poeme.  Arabella Steinbacher, violin; Lawrence Foster, Orquestra Gulbenkian. PentaTone PTC 5186 503.

Arabella Steinbacher, for those who don’t know, is a German classical violinist who has won several important international prizes, recorded over half a dozen albums, and was a student of the Anne-Sophie Mutter Foundation “Circle of Friends.” On the present disc she puts her talents to work playing violin works by Bruch, Korngold, and Chausson.

First up is the Violin Concerto in D, Op. 35, by Austrian composer, conductor, and pianist Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957). Korngold wrote it in 1945, at the end of World War II, because he had vowed years earlier to continue writing only film music (think of Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and The Sea Hawk) until the Allies defeated Hitler. When that happened, he turned to the Violin Concerto and further work in the classical field. Needless to say, the Concerto became a hit with the public, probably for its combination of Romantic lyricism and lush melodies, although many critics couldn’t help thinking it sounding too much like the composer’s film music and dismissed it out of hand.

From the outset we can see that Ms. Steinbacher is going to be doing an all-out Romantic reading of the music, if one that is clean and free of excessive virtuosic baggage. It’s an appropriate reading, given that Korngold used material from some of his more exotic movie scores, like Another Dawn, Anthony Adverse, Juarez, and The Prince and the Pauper in the first movement alone. Not all critics may not take it seriously, but Ms. Steinbacher does. She infuses the piece with an earnest emotion, excellent structure, and superb craftsmanship that not even the copious eruptions of obvious cinematic references can diminish. Her violin tone is sweet and fluid, like the music, and the violin shimmers with delight in every phrase.

Next up is the little Poeme for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 25, by the French composer Ernest Chausson (1855-1899), a work he completed in 1896 and has since become one of his most-famous pieces of music. Almost every notable violinist of the past century has recorded it, so Ms. Steinbacher had her work cut out for her. Fortunately, the music sounds lovely in her hands, if not quite so emotionally charged as Perlman’s (EMI), which remains my favorite in this work. Nevertheless, Steinbacher brings a longing melancholy to the music and emphasizes the dark, brooding aspects of the Russian story Chausson used as a model for the piece.

The program concludes with the Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26, by the German composer and conductor Max Bruch (1838-1920). He premiered his revised version in 1867, and it has since become one of the staples of the violin repertoire. It has a curious first movement, a Vorspiel (or Prelude) leading directly to the second movement. This Vorspiel is like a slow march, with some ornamental flourishes along the way. It is here that Ms. Steinbacher is especially at home with the overt Romanticism of the score. While she may not exude the dramatic intensity we find in Heifetz’s classic recording (RCA), she does convey a warm, rapturous feeling as the opening music builds to its conclusion.

The second-movement Adagio is beautifully melodious and forms the core of the work. Here we find a series of broadly sweeping themes, with the violin aided by a graceful orchestral accompaniment. In this section, Ms. Steinbacher takes a backseat to no one, the notes flowing lusciously from her violin in endless delight.

The Finale begins quietly until the violin opens up with a vivacious theme in the form of a dance, which along with its lyricism reminds us of its Romantic origins, and finishes in a grand climax. Ms. Steinbacher plays it in a thoroughly charming and sprightly fashion and closes things on a befittingly sunny note. For lovers of multichannel sound in particular, Ms. Steinbacher’s SACD presentation seems an easy recommendation.

The recording date was July, 2012, and the venue the Grande Auditorio of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon, Portugal. Although there is nothing spectacular about the two-channel SACD stereo mode of this hybrid disc (to which I listened), it is pleasantly natural and truthful. The violin sounds almost perfectly integrated with the orchestra, for example, not too far in front of it, not too recessed, and it appears most realistic in its tone. The orchestral sonics are also good:  ultrasmooth, slightly warm, nicely balanced, and lightly resonant. Orchestral depth is adequate, and left-to-right stereo spread is commendable, with the frequency extremes and dynamic impact modest yet comfortably lifelike.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

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.

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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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