Bruch: Violin Concerto (SACD review)

Also Korngold: Violin Concerto; Chausson:  Poeme.  Arabella Steinbacher, violin; Lawrence Foster, Orquestra Gulbenkian. PentaTone PTC 5186 503.

Arabella Steinbacher, for those who don’t know, is a German classical violinist who has won several important international prizes, recorded over half a dozen albums, and was a student of the Anne-Sophie Mutter Foundation “Circle of Friends.” On the present disc she puts her talents to work playing violin works by Bruch, Korngold, and Chausson.

First up is the Violin Concerto in D, Op. 35, by Austrian composer, conductor, and pianist Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957). Korngold wrote it in 1945, at the end of World War II, because he had vowed years earlier to continue writing only film music (think of Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and The Sea Hawk) until the Allies defeated Hitler. When that happened, he turned to the Violin Concerto and further work in the classical field. Needless to say, the Concerto became a hit with the public, probably for its combination of Romantic lyricism and lush melodies, although many critics couldn’t help thinking it sounding too much like the composer’s film music and dismissed it out of hand.

From the outset we can see that Ms. Steinbacher is going to be doing an all-out Romantic reading of the music, if one that is clean and free of excessive virtuosic baggage. It’s an appropriate reading, given that Korngold used material from some of his more exotic movie scores, like Another Dawn, Anthony Adverse, Juarez, and The Prince and the Pauper in the first movement alone. Not all critics may not take it seriously, but Ms. Steinbacher does. She infuses the piece with an earnest emotion, excellent structure, and superb craftsmanship that not even the copious eruptions of obvious cinematic references can diminish. Her violin tone is sweet and fluid, like the music, and the violin shimmers with delight in every phrase.

Next up is the little Poeme for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 25, by the French composer Ernest Chausson (1855-1899), a work he completed in 1896 and has since become one of his most-famous pieces of music. Almost every notable violinist of the past century has recorded it, so Ms. Steinbacher had her work cut out for her. Fortunately, the music sounds lovely in her hands, if not quite so emotionally charged as Perlman’s (EMI), which remains my favorite in this work. Nevertheless, Steinbacher brings a longing melancholy to the music and emphasizes the dark, brooding aspects of the Russian story Chausson used as a model for the piece.

The program concludes with the Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26, by the German composer and conductor Max Bruch (1838-1920). He premiered his revised version in 1867, and it has since become one of the staples of the violin repertoire. It has a curious first movement, a Vorspiel (or Prelude) leading directly to the second movement. This Vorspiel is like a slow march, with some ornamental flourishes along the way. It is here that Ms. Steinbacher is especially at home with the overt Romanticism of the score. While she may not exude the dramatic intensity we find in Heifetz’s classic recording (RCA), she does convey a warm, rapturous feeling as the opening music builds to its conclusion.

The second-movement Adagio is beautifully melodious and forms the core of the work. Here we find a series of broadly sweeping themes, with the violin aided by a graceful orchestral accompaniment. In this section, Ms. Steinbacher takes a backseat to no one, the notes flowing lusciously from her violin in endless delight.

The Finale begins quietly until the violin opens up with a vivacious theme in the form of a dance, which along with its lyricism reminds us of its Romantic origins, and finishes in a grand climax. Ms. Steinbacher plays it in a thoroughly charming and sprightly fashion and closes things on a befittingly sunny note. For lovers of multichannel sound in particular, Ms. Steinbacher’s SACD presentation seems an easy recommendation.

The recording date was July, 2012, and the venue the Grande Auditorio of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon, Portugal. Although there is nothing spectacular about the two-channel SACD stereo mode of this hybrid disc (to which I listened), it is pleasantly natural and truthful. The violin sounds almost perfectly integrated with the orchestra, for example, not too far in front of it, not too recessed, and it appears most realistic in its tone. The orchestral sonics are also good:  ultrasmooth, slightly warm, nicely balanced, and lightly resonant. Orchestral depth is adequate, and left-to-right stereo spread is commendable, with the frequency extremes and dynamic impact modest yet comfortably lifelike.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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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 Jon 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 of The $ensible Sound magazine 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 simpleminded, 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 Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. 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 cell phone. 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.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

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