Beethoven: Violin Concerto (CD review)

Gidon Kremer, violin; Neville Marriner, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Newton Classics 8802064.

Somehow, this one escaped me when Philips first issued it some twenty-five years past. But now that Newton Classics have given us this 2011 rerelease, I've had the chance to hear what I missed all those years ago. Not that I was missing a seriously must-have performance; still, the recording has its merits, along with a serious drawback.

Violinist Gidon Kremer is, of course, a gifted musician, and Sir Neville Marriner and his Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields have been at the top of their game for over fifty years. They provide a generally fine interpretation of Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D, Op. 61, in all regards but one.

The point of controversy in this recording is Kremer's choice of cadenzas, those improvisatory passages where the composer expects the soloist to elaborate in his or her own virtuosic way, usually on a phrase or two from within a movement. Sometimes the soloist creates the cadenza, sometimes the soloist borrows a cadenza from someone else, and sometimes a composer will write out the cadenzas for the soloist to follow. In the case of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, the composer never wrote any of the cadenzas in the work, with most violinists going with those of Joseph Joachim or Fritz Kreisler, Jascha Heifetz using a combination of his own and Joachim's, Rachel Barton Pine using her own personal creations, and so forth. Which brings us to Kremer, who uses cadenzas written for him in 1975-77 by his friend, the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998).

Schnittke's cadenzas are, in a word, odd. From what I understand, Schnittke wanted to combine elements of traditional classical and Romantic music with those of modern, experimental music, the resulting passages hitting a somewhat jarring, distracting note in the midst of Beethoven's more-familiar territory. When the cadenzas appear--a major one near the end of the first movement, a brief transitional one at the end of the second movement, and a final one near the end of the last movement--they come in stark contrast to everything around them.

On a more positive note, Beethoven's expansive first-movement Allegro opens conventionally enough, the ASMF sounding a bit smaller than its more imposing rivals and Marriner adopting moderate, relaxed tempos. When Kremer enters, he, too, maintains the pleasantly genial mood of the introduction. Neither the soloist nor the conductor ever tries to force Beethoven's grand design on the listener, so the music is never overwhelming, just relatively gentle, refined, and comforting. At least, it is until the entrance of the first cadenza, which casts a kind of bizarre shadow over the rest of the music.

Left to their own devices and using a fairly orthodox cadenza in the second movement, Kremer and Marriner produce a sweetly affecting Larghetto that leads to an airily lilting finale. Unfortunately, in the final segment again the mood gets shattered by the intrusion of Schnittke's seemingly inappropriate twentieth-century cadenza. Ah, well; I'm sure some folks will appreciate and grow to love the unusual, often eccentric qualities of these interruptions; I didn't, although I can certainly respect Schnittke's earnest intentions.

Recorded in London in 1980, the Philips sound is characteristically warm and spacious. There is a very wide stereo spread involved, with more-than-adequate depth to the orchestral field and a reasonably broad dynamic range. The violin tone is as smooth as the rest of the production, with strong bass support, so the whole recording comes across as easy on the ears, if not as transparent as some of its competition.

Of minor concern, Newton Classics provide only the one work on the disc, about forty-four minutes long, which seems rather short measure even if it duplicates the original Philips disc. They might have found something to couple with the Concerto, if only for the sake of appearances.


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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