Sibelius: Violin Concerto (CD review)

Also, The Bard, The Wood Nymph. Frank Peter Zimmermann, violin; John Storgards, Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra. Ondine ODE 1147-2.

The problem facing most new recordings of basic-repertoire items comes from the existing pool of rival recordings. Any new offering has to be an extraordinarily good performance or be extraordinarily well recorded to stand a chance against established classics. Either that, or the new recording must feature a star performer or a star orchestra with an enormous following of fans who will buy everything they produce.

In the case of this new Sibelius Violin Concerto, violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann is up against recordings from Heifetz (RCA), Lin (Sony), Perlman (EMI), Chung (Decca), and others, even a recent one from Vilde Frang (EMI). As good as Zimmermann is and as good a recording as Ondine produce, it's not quite up their measure.

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) wrote his Violin Concerto in 1903, premiered it in 1904, then revised it in 1905; it's been among everyone's favorites ever since. Heifetz in his celebrated stereo recording produced a somewhat cold, thrusting, hard-edged, yet incisive performance, which, nonetheless, probably turns off some listeners. Vilde Frang's recording of the Concerto, which I heard a few months ago, caresses and finesses the music lovingly enough possibly to win over the anti-Heifetz crowd. Which brings us to Zimmermann's interpretation.

The Concerto's first movement is its coldest and most distant, at least in part, and that's exactly the way Zimmermann, maestro John Storgards, and the Helsinki Philharmonic play it, with the soloist taking a kind of middle-of-the-road approach between the white heat of Heifetz and the more sentimental view of Frang. Frankly, I prefer the extremes for a more-memorable reading, but certainly this new interpretation may attract a larger, if more conservative, audience.

The slow second-movement Adagio is as Romantic as anything Sibelius wrote. Here, Zimmermann is quite persuasive, caressing the notes with a delicate, if subdued passion. The violin's plaintive cries intermingle nicely with the orchestra's sympathetic support.

The final movement has always been a touch controversial, the composer finding most early recordings too slow. The music commentator Donald Tovey once wrote that it possessed "...the spirit of a polar explorer. [The finale] evidently a polonaise for polar bears...." It's a cute line, and maybe it explains, at least partially, why Sibelius asked his publisher to change the tempo marking. Zimmermann, trying to take Sibelius at his word, plays this final movement more quickly than most, while still not as fast as Heifetz. Again, the result is a compromise, which rather sums up the whole performance.

Sibelius premiered The Bard in 1913, revising it and conducting it again in 1916. He described it as "a narrative ancient Scandinavian or Viking ballad," which is evident from the lovely introduction on harp. It's a relatively brief piece, and Storgards treats it gently and affectionately.

The early tone poem The Wood Nymph (1895) does not benefit from the conciseness of Sibelius's later work, and it is a bit of a sprawling tale. The booklet note tells us that this Helsinki performance uses the latest critical edition, and maybe that helps. The musical program concerns a Nordic hero who loses his heart to a wood nymph. You know how that is. The music is fun in its way, quite different from the other pieces on the disc. It's more colorful, more Technicolor, actually, highly animated, and full of wild abandon and erotic charge, which Storgards keeps from getting too far out of hand.

Ondine recorded the music in Finlandia Hall, Helsinki, in 2008 (Violin Concerto) and 2010 (The Bard, The Wood Nymph), using a 24-bit DXD (Digital eXtreme Definition) process. The sound is suitably dynamic when necessary, with good impact and fairly precise definition. Yet it is also warm and smooth, about what one would hear in a concert hall from a seat maybe halfway back. In general, it complements the performances.


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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