The good news: the Brahms and Bartok violin concertos always make good listening, Janine Jansen is a top-notch violinist, Sir Antonio Pappano is a distinguished conductor, and both the Orchestra of the National Academy of Santa Cecilia and the London Symphony Orchestra are world-class ensembles.
The bad news: Decca recorded the Brahms live.
Ms. Jansen explains in the disc's accompanying booklet why she chose to pair the Brahms concerto with the Bartok, but I'm afraid I didn't find her reasoning entirely convincing. She says the two works "share a Hungarian connection, but also a profound combination of symphonic power and chamber-scale intimacy." Certainly, that's true. However, the Brahms seems to me still rooted firmly in the Romantic era, while the Bartok has a foot in the Modern age. Thus, while they may both show Hungarian traits (Bartok, especially, who was himself Hungarian), the musical language of each piece seems entirely different. Nevertheless, they are both enjoyable and justly popular works, so who really cares if there is any direct connection between them.
The program opens with the Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77 by German composer and pianist Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). He wrote it about the time he wrote his Second Symphony (1877), and the two works display a kind of pastoral, bucolic atmosphere. However, the slightly later Violin Concerto sounds a little more rugged and robust, yet more lofty and aristocratic, almost as rustic as it is rhapsodic, making it something of an opposition in charms. What's more, because Brahms grew up in a period where classicism was giving way to full-blown Romanticism, the composer sometimes found himself caught between the two competing styles, as we hear in the piece.
Ms. Jansen plays beautifully, as we would expect. There is always a lovely lilt to the music, the melodies floating effortlessly throughout. She is particularly careful not to overdo the main theme in the first movement but keeps it in accordance with the light, flowing mood of the rest of her playing. The Adagio, with its beautiful oboe introduction, is the highlight of the show, with Jansen's entrance most magical. Then, Pappano and company end the work in a properly enthusiastic style, the Hungarian influence obviously in evidence in Jansen's lively playing.
The second item on the agenda is the Violin Concerto No. 1, BB 48A by composer and pianist Bela Bartok (1881-1945). The Bartok concerto is much briefer than the Brahms, about half its length and in only two movements, with variations on Hungarian folk tunes the major concern. Here, the LSO sounds fuller and lusher than their Italian counterparts, yet they still provide Ms. Jansen a relatively intimate accompaniment. Perhaps to better establish the relationship between the Bartok and Brahms pieces, Ms. Jansen injects them both with an affectionate, evocative flavor, the melodies dancing with a passionate, songlike character.
Executive producer Alexander Van Ingen, recording producers Andrew Walton (Brahms) and Andrew Keener (Bartok), and engineers Jonathan Allen (Brahms) and Simon Eadon (Bartok) recorded the music at Santa Cecilia Hall, Rome (Brahms, live) in February 2015 and Walthamstow Assembly Hall (Bartok) in August 2014.
The live sound of the Brahms is a little bright and edgy in the upper midrange, emphasizing a small degree of background noise. The rest of the midrange and upper bass are on the soft, warm side, and the deeper notes are somewhat woolly, so don't expect ultimate transparency. Because of the closeness of the miking, we don't get as muchorchestral depth as one might like. The violin sounds nicely integrated with the rest of the ensemble, though, and the violin tone adequately rendered. The sound of the Bartok was more to my liking, a little clearer, better defined, and better balanced.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow: