Dvorak: Violin Concerto (CD review)

Also, Romance for Violin and Orchestra; Mazurek for Violin and Orchestra; Humoresque.  Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin; Manfred Honeck, Berlin Philharmonic. DG B0019303-02.

Although Dvorak’s Violin Concerto long ago took its place in the basic classical repertoire, it has never quite caught on with the public the way those from Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Paganini, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and the rest have caught on. The Dvorak hasn’t quite the soaring lines, memorable melodies, and grand Romantic gestures we find in other popular concertos. Still, it offers its fair share of pleasures, and certainly this new recording from violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and the Berlin Philharmonic makes the most of them.

Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) wrote his Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in A minor, Op. 53 in 1879, premiering it in 1883. The famous Hungarian violinist, conductor, composer and teacher Joseph Joachim inspired Dvorak to write the piece, and the composer intended for Joachim to play it. As it turned out, Joachim didn’t much care for the finished work and never did perform it. Despite the violinist’s skepticism, Dvorak released the piece, and the rest is history, as they say. I dunno, though. Maybe Joachim had something; the music has never impressed me as much as the other staple items above have, even in the capable hands of Ms. Mutter. Indeed, the back cover announces that the Dvorak is “the last of the great Romantic concertos to enter Ms. Mutter’s discography,” and I wonder if there isn’t a reason for that.

Anyway, Dvorak begins the concerto with an Allegro ma non troppo (fast, but not too much), the "ma non troppo" marking used in all three movements. The violin enters almost immediately, and Ms. Mutter caresses the opening passages most tenderly, while still imparting a desired grandeur to the music. Joachim may have felt that the orchestra dominated the score, but Dvorak made some revisions before premiering it, and certainly in this interpretation, Maestro Honeck and his Berlin players share the spotlight equally with the violinist, never overwhelming her. If anything, it is Ms. Mutter's commanding execution of the music that tends to control the reading. The performance is tender, lilting, singing, rhapsodic, and a touch melancholic in every phrase.

The slow central movement, the Adagio ma non troppo, is the emotional heart of the work. Again, Dvorak's marking indicates he didn't want the soloist or orchestra to take things too slowly, possibly not to make the music too sentimental. Nevertheless, while Ms. Mutter does tend to stretch it out a bit more than usual, she never loses sight of the music's emotional grip. Even at a marginally slower pace than some other violinists have approached it, she is well able to communicate the movement's pensive yearning.

In the Finale Dvorak returns to the radiant, dance-like tunes of the opening movement, and Ms. Mutter shines accordingly. She has a good feel for Dvorak's Bohemian roots, and her violin skips along merrily. It's a delight, and along with Perlman (EMI) we must now count it among the best recorded performances of the work available.

Coupled to the concerto are the Romance for Violin and Orchestra in F minor, Op. 11 and the Mazurek for Violin and Orchestra in E-minor, Op. 49. The former is a tuneful cantabile, the latter a more carefree folk dance. In both instances, the soloist and orchestra are at one and execute the music with precision and joy.

The combination of one of the world's leading violinists with one of the world's greatest orchestras results in a world-class set of performances that one can hardly fault. Both Ms. Mutter and the Berlin Philharmonic play gloriously.

The program concludes with a brief piece for violin and piano accompaniment, the familiar Humoresque, Op. 101, No. 7. Ms. Mutter's inflections provide it with a memorable scope, making it a fitting ending to a noteworthy album.

Producer Arend Prohmann and engineer Stephan Flock recorded the album at the Philharmonie (Concerto, Romance, Mazurek) and Meistersaal (Humoresque), Berlin in June 2013. It's amazing how good an orchestra can sound when it's freed from the constraints of a live recording. The Berlin Philharmonic is a magnificent ensemble, but too often producers have felt it necessary to record them live, with all the consequent shortcomings that technique implies. Here, we get a big, full, warm sound, slightly close up but not overbearingly so. With an enormous dynamic range, a strong impact, and a wide frequency response, the resultant sound is very impressive, rather like being in the sixth or seventh row of the concert hall itself. The violin also sounds good, with a most-realistic string tone. It's good to hear the Berliners in all their glory again, especially when the recording engineer so well integrated the soloist into the occasion.

To listen to 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