First, you might not know the disc's soloist. The talented young German-Italian violinist Augustin Hadelich very nearly had his career ended in a 1999 fire that damaged much of his hands and face. After recovering, he continued his musical education, going on to win numerous competitions and awards, including a Grammy, perform with many of the world's leading orchestras, and record over half a dozen albums.
Second, you might be wondering about the disc's coupling. Mr. Hadelich writes, "The combination of Mendelssohn and Bartok may seem strange at first, and it is certainly unusual. However, as often happens with contrasting pairings, there are more similarities between Mendelssohn and Bartok than one might expect, and the character and style of each work are made clearer and have more impact when one hears them side by side. According to the popular clichés, Mendelssohn was the happy romantic and Bartok the tortured soul. There is some truth to that: I would say that Mendelssohn was overall an optimist...and Bartok more of a pessimist. Indeed, when one examines the music more closely, things are much more complex!" Hadelich then goes on to explain each work's complexities, but, unfortunately, he never persuaded me to see the connections among them too well. Oh, well, it's in hearing Hadelich playing the two concertos that one will either agree or disagree with his choice of pairing.
Third, you might ask, Why do I need another recording of two such well-traveled classics? Here, things become a little trickier. If every performer interpreted a piece of music exactly the same way as every other performer, we would have no need for multiple recordings in our collections. It would be as though robots had played the music, note for note the same as everybody else. But, no, that's not the way it works. All performers put a little something of themselves in a piece of music. Too much and the performance may sound distorted and perhaps more than a bit egotistical. Too little and the performance may sound bland, undistinguished, even lifeless. With Hadelich, the Bartok sounds the more convincing, the Mendelssohn a bit too hurried in the important opening movement, thereby losing some of its charm.
Fortunately, Hadelich is in form in the slow central movement, which sounds quite lyrically balanced, and the finale, which catches more of Mendelssohn's sprightly heart than Hadelich's handling of the first movement did. In addition, the soloist provides an effectively smooth and graceful transition into the last movement with the composer's little intermezzo-like passage. So, all's well that ends well.
Hungarian composer and pianist Bela Bartok (1881-1945) wrote his Violin Concerto No. 2 in 1937-38, and during his lifetime people simply knew it as the "Violin Concerto" because his earlier violin concerto (now known as No. 1), written decades earlier and put aside, would not get published until 1956. As Hadelich reminds us in a booklet note, it was the Hungarian violinist Zoltan Szekely who asked Bartok to write a violin concerto, and Bartok replied, no, he'd rather write a theme and variations for violin and orchestra. As it turns out, the composer wound up doing both: the concerto is really a piece that while embracing the usual three-movement structure actually contains a set of variations in the second movement and then in the final movement a variation of the first.
Hadelich handles all of this with a refined grace, which is perhaps the interpretation's only point of contention, given that Bartok wrote it at a time of increasing fascist rule in Europe, generally reflected in some of the music's pessimism. So Hadelich's rendition of the score isn't quite as pointed as some others you may have on your shelf. Nevertheless, under the guidance of Hadelich and Maestro Harth-Bedoya, the music finds its rightful place, in part dark and melancholy, in part spontaneous and singing.
Producer Andrew Keener and engineer Thomas Wolden (LAWO Classics) recorded the concertos at the Concert Hall, NRK Radio, Oslo, Norway in June 2014. As with almost every Avie recording I've had the pleasure to listen to this one sounds terrific: Very lifelike, with a warm ambience enhancing the natural bloom of the instruments. The soloist remains in front of the orchestra but at a realistic distance, meaning he is not in our face. What's more, the solo violin sounds truthful in size, not spread across the speakers. The orchestral accompaniment is vivid enough without being forward or bright. It's a triumphant sonic achievement all the way around.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow: