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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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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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa