Dvorak: Violin Concerto (CD review)

Also, Khachaturian: Violin Concerto. Rachel Barton Pine, violin; Teddy Abrams, Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Avie AV2411.

It's always a pleasure to welcome a new recording by American virtuoso violinist Rachel Barton Pine (b. 1974). She began her concert career at the age of ten with Erich Leinsdorf and the Chicago Symphony in the mid 1980's and her recording career with the Dorian and Cedille labels in the mid 1990's. It was here with Cedille that I first encountered her and, I'm proud to say, first began reviewing her recordings. She continued making records mostly with Cedille up until just a few years ago when she began working with Avie Records. While today she appears to be recording with both Cedille and Avie, whatever the record company she has continued to produce well poised and sweetly polished performances, with some of the best sound afforded a violinist. The present Avie disc is a case in point.

Here, Ms. Barton Pine tackles two giant works of the violin concerto genre, those by Dvorak and Khachaturian, starting the album with the Dvorak. Even though Dvorak's Violin Concerto took its place in the basic classical repertoire long ago, it has never seemed to quite catch on with the public the way those from Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Paganini, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and others have caught on. The Dvorak maybe hasn't quite the soaring lines, memorable melodies, and grand Romantic gestures we find in other popular concertos. Still, it offers its fair share of pleasures, which Ms. Barton Pine is eager to share with us.

So, Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) wrote his Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in A minor, Op. 53 in 1879, premiering it in 1883. The famous Hungarian violinist, conductor, composer, and teacher Joseph Joachim inspired Dvorak to write the piece, and the composer intended for Joachim to play it. However, as it turned out, Joachim didn't much care for the finished work and never did perform it. Despite the violinist's skepticism, though, Dvorak released the piece, and the rest is history, as they say. Still, I have some lingering doubts myself. Maybe Joachim had something, the music never impressing me as much as it has impressed some others, even in the capable hands of Ms. Barton Pine.

Rachel Barton Pine
Whatever, Dvorak begins the concerto with an Allegro ma non troppo (fast, but not too much), the "ma non troppo" marking used in all three movements. The violin enters almost immediately. Joachim may have felt that the orchestra dominated the score, but Dvorak made some revisions before premiering it. Here, with Ms. Barton Pine, there is no question the violin dominates. She asserts her authority on the music from the outset, clearly establishing who is in charge. She handles the primary melody with both power and grace, making it strong yet lyrical and flowing. It's quite rhapsodic and quite lovely.

The slow central section, the Adagio ma non troppo, is the emotional heart of the work. Again, Dvorak's marking indicates he didn't want the soloist or orchestra to take things too slowly, possibly not to make the music too sentimental. The movement became so popular that concert violinists often perform it as a stand-alone item. Be that as it may, in the hands of Ms. Barton Pine it sounds all of a piece with the rest of the concerto, an integral part rather than an artificial add-on. She maintains a good, forward pace (again, not too slow was Dvorak's advice), and invests the music with much inner feeling and joy. And I should add that Maestro Abrams's accompaniment is flawless, and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra sounds appropriately rich, lush, and accomplished.

In the Finale Dvorak returns to the radiant, dance-like tunes and Czech folk melodies of the opening movement. Ms. Barton Pine's interpretation is a delight, and along with Perlman (EMI) and Mutter (DG) must now count as one of the best recorded performances of the work available.

Coupled with the Dvorak we find the Violin Concerto of Soviet-Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978). He wrote it in 1940, and Soviet violinist David Oistrakh premiered it the same year. Apparently, Khachaturian found much influence for the work from the folk music of his native Armenia. It is a surprisingly old-fashioned piece of music for the mid twentieth century, with much rhythm, vitality, and melody, which may explain why it won the Stalin Prize in 1941 from a notoriously conservative body of Soviet judges who at the time were pretty much down on anything sounding even vaguely modern.

Ms. Barton Pine plays the Khachaturian with abandon. It appears she has had plenty of practice in doing so as she says she had an immediate connection with the work, and for a while it was her "go-to concerto for competitions." She brings out all the folk-inspired qualities of the music and invests it with a profusion of color.

Producer Andrew Keener and engineer Simon Eadon recorded the concertos at RSNO Centre, Glasgow, Scotland in August 2018. The sound is quite good, with the soloist well centered and not too far out in front of the orchestra. Meanwhile, the orchestral detailing is also good, perhaps a tad bright and forward but nothing too objectionable. The dynamic range is wide, and transient impact is more than adequate. What's more, any minor edge in the upper frequencies is more than mitigated by the warmth of the lower midrange and upper bass. I don't think most people will be disappointed in Avie's sound.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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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