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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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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.

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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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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa