Mendelssohn & Tchaikovsky Violin Concertos (SACD review)

Arabella Steinbacher, violin; Charles Dutoit, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. Pentatone PTC 5186 504.

For those of you not yet acquainted with the German-Japanese violinist Arabella Steinbacher, she has won several important international prizes, recorded over a dozen albums, and received an Anne-Sophie Mutter Foundation scholarship. To give you an idea of people's respect for her talent, Ms. Steinbacher currently plays the Booth Stradivarius (1716) provided by the Nippon Music Foundation.

Having already recorded concertos by Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Dvorak, Bruch, Bartók, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Milhaud, Khachaturian, and Korngold, here she gives us an album of possibly the two most-famous violin concertos of them all, the Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky. If you are already familiar with Ms. Steinbacher's work, you'll like what you hear. With her fluid tone, incisive insight, and emotive style, she does excellent work in both pieces. And it's invariably a pleasure to have the suave Charles Dutoit leading any orchestra.

Ms. Steinbacher opens the program with the Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64, which German composer and musician Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809-1847) premiered in 1845, his last big orchestral work. Ms. Steinbacher adopts tempos that appear energetic but never rushed. The performance sounds just as one might hope, never lagging, never sentimentalized, never hurried. She invests it with a wealth of humanity as well, making Mendelssohn sparkle in the process. Mendelssohn should above all dance and shine, which Ms. Steinbacher accomplishes with a refined ease. The interpretation is both elegant and vivacious, a pleasing combination.

The second movement, which Ms. Steinbacher takes at a little slower, more-dreamy pace than many other soloists, nevertheless sounds perfectly judged. It has a timeless beauty about it that is hard to resist. Then she moves into the final movement with a animated charm, ending the piece with a wonderfully bubbly exuberance.

Arabella Steinbacher
The second item on Ms. Steinbacher's agenda is the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major, Op. 35, by Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893). The composer wrote it in 1878 but premiered it several years later because the person he originally wanted to perform it deemed it unplayable. Anyway, here things are a little different, and some listeners may balk at Ms. Steinbacher's somewhat leisurely approach to the first movement. Although she seems to take things a little too slowly at times, her interpretation is sensuous to say the least. Indeed, it is one of the most intensely placid performances of this piece I think I've heard, still passionate if in a quieter way. It's moody, atmospheric, serene, yet explosive when necessary.

The question one always has to ask of any new recording of old warhorses, though, is whether the new effort is in any way better than what is already available from dozens of other commendable discs. In this case, I'm not sure Ms. Steinbacher's album would be my first choice in this repertoire. However, the disc will not disappoint her fans, and there is no denying her virtuosic playing.

Pentatone package the disc in an SACD case, further enclosed by a light-cardboard slipcover.

Producer Job Maarse and engineer Roger de Schot recorded the concertos at the Victoria Hall, Geneva, Switzerland in September 2014. They made the recording for hybrid SACD playback, so there is not only a regular two-channel CD layer playable on any standard CD player, there is also a two-channel and multichannel SACD layer playable only on an SACD player. I listened to the two-channel SACD stereo layer using a Sony SACD player.

There is usually something one notices first about the sound of an album, and in this case it was the clarity of the violin: sweet and natural and ultraclean. The next thing I noticed was the dynamic range and impact of the transients. Again, these characteristics produce a very lifelike reproduction of the solo instrument and orchestra. The recording's stereo spread also appears quite realistic, stretching between the speakers but not much beyond; and orchestral depth, while modest, appears real enough. The whole affair is warm and smooth, making an appealing proposition.


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