Bach: The Violin Concertos (CD review)

Also, Double Violin Concerto; Oboe and Violin Concerto. Lara St. John, violin; Scott St. John, violin; Ariana Ghez, oboe; New York Bach Ensemble; Eduardo Marturet, The Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. Ancalagon Records ANC138.

This 2012 album contains Bach’s two Violin Concertos and the Double Concerto that violinist Lara St. John and her brother Scott released about a decade before, but the album now also includes Bach’s Oboe and Violin Concerto, recorded some eight years later. Here’s the thing the disc illustrates: Ms. St. John’s playing style, execution, and presentation has improved over the years as maturity has tempered some of her youthful enthusiasm and further heightened her virtuosity. So for me the disc’s earlier-recorded Bach may not be among her best work, although it is still worth one’s attention.

Earlier this year, I had heard much of this music from violinist Anne Akiko Meyers and the English Chamber Orchestra on an eOne Music CD that I greatly admired. Thus, fair or not, it was with fond memories of Ms. Meyers’s fine interpretations that I listened to Ms. St. John’s album.

The first thing I noticed about the outer movements of the solo Violin Concertos is that Ms. St. John plays them fast. While they’re not breathless, they are quicker than most readings, quicker even than the period-instruments’ recording with La Petite Bande I hand on hand.

The next thing I noticed is that although the fast movements zip right along at a vigorous clip, they aren’t necessarily more exciting, more involving, more insightful, or more penetrating for all their speed than many more-relaxed renditions. Ms. St. John is simply...fast.

After that, I noticed that the slow inner movements are actually slower than ones I usually hear. There’s nothing wrong with this, either, especially since it does nothing seriously to harm or disrupt the beauty of the movements or the integrity of the work as a whole. Still, it probably creates more of a contrast than some listeners may care to hear.

Then, I also noticed a certain rigidity of attack throughout, without much gradation, ornamentation, or variation of nuance. Again, Mr. St. John’s interpretative manner might please listeners who prefer a fleet, unadorned approach, while it may simply strike other listeners as too complacent, too safe, merely a proficient playing of the notes without much feeling behind them. In other words, there is a degree of sameness about Ms. St. John’s renderings of the solo Violin Concertos, despite the vigorous playing. Fortunately, as I said earlier, Ms. St. John seems to have learned over the years to combine her passionate performance style with a genuine understanding of the music, as evidenced by her more-recent recording of the Mozart Third Violin Concerto for Ancalagon. 

Contrary to my feelings about the Violin Concerto tracks, however, I rather enjoyed the Double Concerto, which Ms. St. John performs with her brother Scott. Here, she puts her brisk pacing to use better here than in the solo affairs, keeping the music always on its toes so to speak and involving at least this listener thoroughly.

Finally, we come to Bach’s Concerto for Oboe and Violin, on which oboist Ariana Ghez joins Ms. St. John, with Maestro Eduardo Marturet and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela in support. This seemed to me the best performance on the disc, even though I didn’t care for the sound as much. The interpretation is graceful, flowing, easygoing, yet fully committed. It glides along effortlessly, carrying the listener with it. There even seems to be a better interaction between the soloists and the orchestra. Very nice.

Audio engineer Adam Abeshouse recorded the two Violin Concertos and the Double Concerto at the Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City, NY, in 2000, and the Avie label originally issued the album in 2002. Engineer Jose Leonardo Pupo recorded the Oboe and Violin Concerto at Sala Simon Bolivar, Centro de Accion Social por la Musica, Caracas, Venezuela, in 2008. In the New York sessions we hear a very smooth response, slightly close and well detailed. There is not a lot of depth involved, however, and not quite enough air around the instruments to provide an absolute realism. Compared to the Meyers/ECO recording on eOne I mentioned earlier, the St. John recordings also appear a tad veiled. In the final work on the disc, the orchestra is a bit more distanced, a bit thinner sounding, and a bit brighter in the strings. Neither of Ms. St. John’s recording venues quite contribute to sound of audiophile quality.

To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


JJP

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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.

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa