Sibelius and Prokofiev: Violin Concertos (CD review)

Sibelius: Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47; Humoresques Nos. 1, 2, and 5; Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 1 in D, Op. 19. Vilde Frang, violin; Thomas Sondergard, WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne.  EMI 50999 6 84413 2 6.

Following the custom of the past few decades, this disc marks the recording debut of a talented, young, and beautiful violinist. The cynic might say these are the very qualities chosen by record companies to sell discs, but there is no question about Norwegian-born Vilde Frang being genuinely gifted. Let's just say the fact that her picture also makes an attractive album cover is icing on the cake.

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) wrote his Violin Concerto in 1903, revising it in 1905, and it's been going strong in the repertoire ever since. Ms. Frang takes a far sweeter and more relaxed view of it than does Heifetz in the classic stereo recording I'm used to hearing, which is colder, more hard edged, and more thrusting. Not that Ms. Frang doesn't open things up as the Concerto goes on, but it is the soaring lyricism of Frang's interpretation that lingers on in memory.

While I wouldn't go so far as to say she sentimentalizes the music, she does caress and finesse it lovingly enough possibly to make a believer out the composer's most-hardened critics. That is to say, for those listeners who usually find Sibelius a little too icy, this recording may be the perfect solution for them. The second movement Adagio is as purely Romantic as anything Sibelius wrote, and Ms. Frang exploits just that feature. In the final movement, Sibelius adopts a more driving tone, and here Ms. Frang becomes appropriately more animated. The music commentator Donald Tovey once wrote that the Concerto's finale possessed "...the spirit of a polar explorer. [The finale] evidently a polonaise for polar bears...." Cute line, and I suppose it applies playfully enough here.

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) wrote his First Violin Concerto in 1914. Usually, its opening section sounds more Romantically inclined than the Sibelius, but with Ms. Frang they're both quite similar in their gentle repose. The violin glides along like a bird on the wing, soaring, climbing, and darting as the music demands. Oddly, Prokofiev wrote the middle segment as a brief Scherzo rather than as a traditional slow movement. The composer was full of surprises, and Ms. Frang plays it with evident pleasure. The closing Andante is darkly misty, with yet a moderate pace, and again Ms. Frang's stylish performance wins one's heart.

Filling out the program, we find three short, charming gems, Sibelius's Humoresques for violin and orchestra. I wouldn't call any of the interpretations on the disc definitive, but they are certainly engaging and delightful.

Sonically, mark this 2009 recording as one of EMI's better efforts, well within the mold of their best work of the Sixties and Seventies. We hear a wide stereo spread; a big, open sound field; a strong dynamic impact; a pleasantly warm, ambient bloom; and a decent sense of depth. My only concern is that the violin seems placed too far to the left, slightly upsetting the symmetry of the music's tonal balance; nevertheless, the violin is well integrated into the orchestral setting, with just enough transparency on the strings to simulate a realistic violin sound. In all, violin placement or no, the audio does justice to the reading.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first 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 use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa