Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto (CD review)

Also, Schumann: Violin Concerto; Beethoven: Romances. Rachel Barton Pine, violin; Christoph-Mathias Mueller, Gottinger Symphony Orchestra. Cedille CDR 90000 144.

Have you ever wondered which pieces of today’s music people might still be listening to in a hundred, two hundred, three hundred years? Probably not much of modern pop music; I doubt that Justin Bieber, hip-hop, rap, heavy metal, and the like will survive. Maybe a few folk tunes already a century old. But classical music is another story. Much of Beethoven will endure, Mozart, Bach, and, of course, there will always be 800 new versions of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons available, no doubt played on instruments unknown to us at the present. Which brings us to the question of Mendelssohn. Possibly a few of his chamber pieces will continue; most likely the Third and Fourth Symphonies; certainly A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And probably the Violin Concerto, here rendered quite elegantly by violinist Rachel Barton Pine, conductor Christoph-Mathias Mueller, and the Gottinger Symphony Orchestra of Germany.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) premiered the Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64 in 1845, making it his last big-scale orchestral work. Audiences pretty much loved it from the start, and it has remained among the most-popular staples of the violin repertoire ever since, right up there with the violin concertos of Vivaldi, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky. In Mendelssohn’s concerto the violin enters immediately, without introduction or fanfare, and Ms. Pine's interpretation of the piece is sweetly gentle. She does not race through the music to prove her energy and enthusiasm to the listener. Instead, she appears to view the work as an extension of the Midsummer Night's Dream music, the entire concerto sprinkled with fairy dust. She dances lightly through the notes, virtuosic, to be sure, yet with a tender, sympathetic step. When the music calls for big outbursts, certainly she's ready as the occasion demands. However, this is essentially a sensitive, contemplative account of the score.

The second-movement Andante is likewise sweet and gentle, with a touch of wistfulness, maybe nostalgia, thrown in. Ms. Pine never makes it sound sentimental, though, so we can't get too weepy-eyed over it. Rather, she keeps it grounded, simple, direct, and beautifully effective. Then, in the finale, she goes out with an appropriately cheerful, sprightly bounce, wonderfully happy and entertaining. This is Mendelssohn's music as we've always thought about it, frothy and enchanting.

The second longer item on the disc is the Violin Concerto in D minor, WoO 23 by Robert Schumann (1810-1856). It’s hardly a major repertoire item, being among Schumann’s final works and one that never saw a performance until some eighty years after the composer’s death. Ms. Pine admits in a booklet note that she had never played the music before Maestro Mueller persuaded her to learn and record it here.

While the Schumann is a fairly long and fairly dreary piece, Ms. Pine gives it her best shot. The soloist and conductor make some minor adjustments to the score, which they believe Schumann and the composition's dedicatee, violinist Joseph Joachim, would have approved. And there is no denying that Ms. Pine puts in a heartfelt performance. It's just that it's still a dour piece of music, perhaps reflecting the composer's deteriorating state of mind at the time of its composition. Yet there are sections of soaring lyricism that transcend the work's otherwise relentlessly stern countenance. Moreover, Cedille's lovely recording quality further makes Ms. Pine's interpretation a pleasurable experience.

Filling out the program are Beethoven's two little Romances for Violin and Orchestra, No. 1 in G major and No. 2 in F major, both published between 1803 and 1805 and coming slightly before the composer’s more-famous Violin Concerto in D major from 1806. Beethoven scored both Romances relatively lightly, and in Ms. Pine's hands they come off well, being typically melodic, occasionally pensive, and always flattering.

Producer Steven Epstein and engineer Bill Maylone recorded the music for Cedille in 24-bit digital at Stadthalle Gottingen, Germany in August 2012. Like most Cedille recordings, this one is quite good.  The sound is big, warm, spacious, and realistic. Orchestral depth is good, too, dynamics are reasonably wide, and definition, while not of the kind that might impress some audiophiles with its transparency, is lifelike, with a soft, ambient glow around the instruments. Ms. Pine's violin appears nicely centered in front of the orchestra but not so far forward as to be unnatural.

Finally, with a generous seventy-one minutes of playing time, the disc provides not only good interpretations and good sound but plenty of both. For me, it was worth a listen and will continue to be worth a listen for a long time to come.

To hear 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