SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

KORNGOLD: Violin Concerto in D Major; CHAUSSON: Poème for Violin and Orch.; BRUCH: Violin Con. No. 1 in G Minor – Arabella Steinbacher, v. /Gulbenkian Orch. Lisbon /Lawrence Foster – PentaTone

An odd program, but it has its points, the most compelling a lovely performance of Chausson’s equally lovely Poème.

Published on July 28, 2013

KORNGOLD: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 25; CHAUSSON: Poème for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 25; BRUCH: Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 26 – Arabella Steinbacher, v. /Gulbenkian Orch. Lisbon /Lawrence Foster – PentaTone multichannel SACD PTC 5186 503, 70:23 [Distr. by Naxos] ***1/2:

Despite the fact that this program contains three Romantic works for violin and orchestra, it’s still quite a musical grab-bag. First, there’s a concerto by a late-Romantic Austrian composer who turned to film music and then turned his film music into a simulacrum of late-Romantic concert music. Next, we have the very French music of a disciple of César Franck, a composer whose music was forward-looking enough to garner the admiration of that French progressive Claude Debussy. Finally, we have the work of a German Romantic who found the music of any composer more progressive than Brahms sheer anathema. Strange bedfellows, three to a bed. Anyway, it’s a generous program and played with generous spirit by violinist Arabella Steinbacher.

The notes to this recording tell us that Korngold’s Concerto was a hit when it was premiered by the great Jascha Heifetz in St. Louis in 1947 but that it had harder going with Eastern pundits. Irving Kolodin, music critic for the New York Times, rather cruelly quipped that it contained “more corn than gold.” Actually, I think the German language offers better descriptors: schmaltz or kitsch covers the work pretty well for me, especially the finale based on the main theme from Korngold’s score to the swashbuckling The Prince and the Pauper of 1937. The first movement borrows its two themes from another Errol Flynn vehicle called Another Dawn and the Paul Muni-Bette Davis semi-classic Juarez. The second movement Romance taps the film Anthony Adverse for its tune. If you’re a bigger fan of musical soundtracks than of classical music, this may be the perfect concerto for you. For those who like their music to come in discrete baskets, not so much. At least that’s my thinking, but the evergreen popularity of the work seems to say I’m wrong. Anyhow, Steinbacher and conductor Lawrence Foster give the Concerto a rousing performance, and I find they need fear nothing from the competition that I recall hearing, including the redoubtable Anne-Sophie Mutter (DGG).

With Chausson’s Poème, we have a lesser classic of the repertoire, one you’ll come across far more often on recordings than in the concert hall, but that’s the fate of most concerted works of short duration (well under twenty minutes). The piece is the result of a request by Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe for a full-length concerto. Chausson confessed he wasn’t up to the task and instead preferred a single-movement work that falls into five distinct sections, slow-fast-slow-fast-slow. I’d never taken the time to read about Chausson’s inspiration for the piece and was surprised to learn that it was a novella by Ivan Turgenev called Le chant de l’amour triomphant; in fact, early in the creation process Chausson wrote in his journal that he was rehearsing a work of that name. Sometime before its premiere in 1896, Chausson scrapped that title in favor of the more abstract Poème. Also, fortunately, Chausson did not attempt a faithful musical depiction of the novel’s salient features, which include—besides love requited and unrequited—mysticism, jealousy, and murder. The one abiding inspiration for Chausson was the idea of love triumphant: early in the work the orchestra and then violin introduce a lovely, longing melody that represents this idea. It’s restated resplendently in the Allegro that forms the climax of the work.

Steinbacher gives an impassioned performance here, investing the double-stops of the first violin solo with an aching—even lachrymose—sadness. There’s soaring passion aplenty in the heady Allegro and an avian lightness to the repeated violin tremolos with which Steinbacher leads us into the serene reprise of the opening Lento. Quite lovely.

The Bruch Concerto No. 1 is the heavyweight on the program, a work so beloved and widely performed that a violinist should have something very special to say about the piece before committing it to disc. I’m not sure that this can be said of Arabella Steinbacher’s performance, though it is a polished, very listenable rendering. But compared with the finest readings available, Steinbacher’s is a bit constrained, a trifle aloof, the last movement being the least involving of all. I recently reviewed Vladim Gluzman’s recording with Andrew Litton and the Bergen Philharmonic (Bis) and gave it very high marks. Listening to it again, I’m still convinced of its stature, one that the performance by Steinbacher and Lawrence simply doesn’t match. I also favor the SACD sound afforded Gluzman; it’s more recessed, providing a true concert-hall perspective, plus a finer sense of orchestral sweep and depth.

That said, the PentaTone recording presents a robust, up-front sound picture that some listeners will undoubtedly prefer. And then there’s the, um, unusual programming, which may be a plus in some quarters. If the program appeals, I can certainly recommend Steinbacher’s Chausson, and I think you won’t go wrong either if you’re a Korngold fan.

—Lee Passarella

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