Bach & Vasks: Violin Concertos (CD review)

Bach: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2, BWV 1041 and 1042; Vasks: Violin Concerto "Distant Light." Renaud Capucon, violin and direction; Celine Frisch, continuo; Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Erato 08256 463232 2 7.

Right off, you have to ask the question, Why would French violinist Renaud Capucon choose to pair Baroque composer J.S. Bach's two solo violin concertos with a violin concerto by modern composer Peteris Vasks (b. 1946)? I mean, any potential buyer of the album familiar enough with classical music to want the Vasks piece would surely already own multiple favored copies of the Bach works. And the price of the disc seems awfully high for the Vasks concerto alone.

So, let's allow Mr. Capucon to tell us in his own words why he chose the coupling he did: "A gap of almost three centuries lies between these two composers. One was born in Germany in 1685 and the other in Latvia in 1946. Their music is very different. But in both cases the music has: purity of line, apparent simplicity, celestial harmony. Little remains to be said about Bach, but a great deal remains to be said about Vasks. Bringing them together on the same album seemed natural to me. Like an echo: one responding to the other. These works have in them a search for the absolute as well as moments of Grace. This is music which brings calm, which revitalizes, which gives hope. And the most striking thing of all is the humility of these two composers in the service of beauty." Fair enough.

Anyway, Capucon begins with the familiar: Bach's Violin Concerto No. 2 BWV 1042 and the Violin Concerto No. 1 BWV 1041. Capucon takes the outer movements at what I would describe as elegantly quick tempos, with an emphasis on consistently gentle rhythms. No breakneck speeds here nor any unnecessary lallygagging. The effect is radiant and sweetly glowing, at the same time vibrant and alive. The slow inner movements are abundantly expressive, too, while occasionally lacking in the lyrical grace I've heard from a few other performers. Nevertheless, these are fine interpretations, always reminding us of Capucon's poignancy and virtuosity. If it was purity and simplicity the violinist was after, I'd say he succeeded.

One of the other delights of the program is the work of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Established in 1981 and based in London, they have quickly become one of the finest small ensembles in the world. What's more, with over 250 recordings to their credit, they have become one of the most well-known chamber orchestras around. The ensemble seems always to be at one with the soloist, whether they're actually playing along with him or not. Their accuracy and control are remarkable, their understanding of the music and its atmospheric shadings always in evidence.

Then we get the companion piece, Vasks's Concerto for Violin and String Orchestra "Distant Light," composed in 2003. We learn from a booklet note that Vasks and his family suffered a great deal because of the Nazi and Soviet occupations of his country, and that his music often reflects that experience. We also learn that fellow Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer greatly influenced him, and Vasks dedicated "Distant Light" to him. The work should evoke and underline distant memories, some of them pleasant, many of them melancholy if not downright grave.

I'm sure more educated ears than mine could hear the similarities between the Vasks and Bach concertos, but, alas, I could not. This isn't to say, however, that I didn't enjoy the Vasks concerto a good deal. With a commanding performance from Capucon, the music alternates between mostly quiet, contemplative, introspective moods and more nervous, sometimes folk-inflected states.

Producers Alain Lanceron and Michael Fine and engineer Jin Choi recorded the album at the Darius Milhaud Conservatory, Aix en Provence, France in December 2013. With this recording you get clarity above all. The ensemble is small, so it shows up with excellent definition and detail, and the violin, while a tad forward, sounds well integrated with the group. In other words, the soloist is clearly in charge sonically but not dominating. There is a modest degree of room resonance, plus a reasonable sense of depth that also help the music to appear lifelike. Overall, the sound is smooth, moderately warm, and only a trifle bright.


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 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 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 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