Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto (CD review)

Also, Bartok: Violin Concerto No. 2. Augustin Hadelich, violin; Miguel Harth-Bedoya, Norwegian Radio Orchestra. Avie Records AV2323.

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 clich├ęs, 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.

Augustin Hadelich
Anyway, the German composer and musician Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) premiered his Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64 in 1845; it would be his last big orchestral work. From the very outset we can hear Hadelich's virtuosic command of the violin; he sounds as though he could play anything, anywhere, anytime with consummate ease. However, he also appears to rush through parts, negating some of Mendelssohn's enchanting appeal. In the first movement, at any rate, Hadelich seems intent on display over emotion. This is not to say the music suffers badly, only that it doesn't appear as characteristically charismatic as it does under performers like Perlman, Szeryng, Chee-Yun, or Heifetz, the latter taking the tempos even faster than Hadelich but somehow making them seem more emotionally affecting.

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:

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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