Mendelssohn: Violin Concertos (CD review)

Also, Violin Sonata in F minor. Tianwa Yang, violin; Romain Descharmes, piano; Patrick Gallois, Sinfonia Finlandia Jyvaskyla. Naxos 8.572662.

Because there’s a rule in the music industry that all violinists must record the Beethoven, Brahms, Violin Concerto in E minor. At Amazon I quit counting at a hundred, and I had quite a ways to go. The point is that somebody looking for a first-choice disc or just something to line up on the shelf next to a few first-choice discs may find the assortment of possibilities rather daunting. And the question here is, How does violinist Tianwa Yang’s interpretation, Maestro Patrick Gallois’s conducting, the Sinfonia Finlandia’ playing, and Naxos’s sound stack up against formidable competition from the likes of Perlman (EMI), Heifetz (RCA), Zukerman (Sony),  Szeryng (Philips), Chung (Decca), Chee-Yun (Denon), and a slew of other equally recommendable folks? The answer: Ms. Yang does all right, if maybe not quite in the highest echelon.
Mendelssohn, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky violin concertos at least once in their lifetime, the listener will find perhaps hundreds of different recordings of the Mendelssohn

The still-youthful Ms. Yang, raised in China and now residing in Germany, began playing the violin in 1991 at the age of four, received her first media attention at the age of ten, made her first CD in 2000 at the age of thirteen, and debuted on stage in Europe in 2001. The present Mendelssohn disc makes the eighth album in her discography, so she’s not exactly a newcomer, and she does know what she’s doing.

Ms. Yang opens the show with the Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64, which Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) premiered in 1845, his last large orchestral work. Audiences pretty much loved it from the outset, and it’s been one of the most-popular staples of the violin repertoire ever since. The violin enters immediately, without introduction or fanfare, and Yang takes it head-on. Indeed, she takes all three movements at a heady clip, outpacing all of the other recording artists I had on hand for comparison except Heifetz, who sprints to the finish line ahead of everyone. Not that Yang’s performance ever sounds winded or short-breathed, just quick and lively.

Anyway, Yang has a good grasp of the situation, producing a heady combination of excitement and passion in the faster sections and much beauty in the slower ones. She obviously possesses a remarkable technique, and she displays her virtuosity at every turn. Moreover, while her propensity is for lively rhythms and zippy tempos, she leaves enough spaces in her phrasing to allow the music to breathe freely and come alive. This isn’t a rush job but one of accomplished dexterity in the manner of Heifetz.

The second movement glides effortlessly by with a lovely luminosity. Then the finale exudes all the light, bouncy spirit one could hope for, if maybe a little too much for some traditional listeners.

Mendelssohn was only thirteen when he wrote the Violin Concerto in D minor, leading some critics to dismiss it out of hand. Nevertheless, it has its charms, not the least being its characteristically classical tone and structure and its slightly plaintive, sometimes melancholy solo passages. Yang continues her emotionally compelling reading in an effective Andante and a jaunty Allegro conclusion. 

The final selection on the disc is the Violin Sonata in F minor from 1833 in which pianist Romain Descharmes joins Ms. Yang. While neither of the disc’s companion pieces can touch the great Violin Concerto in E minor, they offer pleasant variety and accomplished playing, particularly in the Sonata’s whirlwind finish.

Naxos recorded the two concertos in 2010 at Hankasalmi Church, Jyvaskyla, Finland, and the sonata in 2011 at Clara-Wieck Auditorium, Sandhausen, Germany. They obtained a nicely balanced sound, the violin well integrated with the orchestra and not completely dominating it as we sometimes hear. The midrange appears clean, the bass adequate to the occasion, and the dynamics steady. Maybe the sonics aren’t in the highest ranks of audiophile stardom, but along with a moderate degree of orchestral depth, they exhibit a welcome realism.

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

JJP

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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