MENDELSSOHN: Violin Concerto in e minor; TCHAIKOVSKY: Violin Concerto in D Major – Arabella Steinbacher, v./ Orch. de la Suisse Romande/ Charles Dutoit – PentaTone

MENDELSSOHN: Violin Concerto in e minor, Op. 64; TCHAIKOVSKY: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35 – Arabella Steinbacher, violin/ Orch. de la Suisse Romande/ Charles Dutoit – PentaTone PTC 5186 504, 68:14 (6/9/15) [Distr. by Naxos] ****: 

Though recorded in fine sound at Victoria Hall in Geneva, Switzerland, in September 2014, and performed on an exquisite “Booth” Stradivarius of 1716, collectors will be hard-pressed to justify yet another combination of these two concerto staples on a single disc.  [But being in excellent hi-res surround may attract those not having these standards in their SACD collection…Ed.] Certainly Steinbacher demonstrates a tasteful balance between lyrically intimate and fiery enthusiasm in her engagement with the 1845 Mendelssohn Concerto.  Her playing may well hearken back to the revered, virtuosic  style of such luminaries as Morini and Martzy, assisted by scrupulous articulation in the L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande under Dutoit. Steinbacher rather “milks” the expansively realized first movement Allegro molto appassionato for its selective moments of almost static meditation, coupled with impulsive thrusts of forward motion.

After the dramatic segue to the C Major Andante – Allegretto non troppo, Steinbacher artfully caresses the veritable song-without-words into a dolefully nostalgic remembrance of lost time. The Suisse Romande tympanist has been poignantly active since early in the concerto, and his contribution to the weavings and pizzicati in the course of movement provides a decided sense of earthy vitality to the procession. The aerial quality of the assisting woodwinds creates a luminous haze through which Steinbacher’s violin sails with seamless sentiment.  As per expectation, the last movement enjoys a playful, Puckish vitality, a mixture of spritely dance and polyphonic learning. At once dreamy and rhythmically active, the collaboration allows a sweet cantabile to flow through the “perpetual” figures that serve to usher us to the movement’s pre-conceived, illuminated finale.

The 1878 Tchaikovsky Concerto receives the same adoring treatment, its first movement evolving as a series rounded arches, moving to the explosive punctuations that culminate in the main tutti. The pacing of the first movement Allegro moderato more than once reminded me of the Francescatti/Mitropoulos inscription for its warmth of temperament and innate nobility of line. Steinbacher’s innate sensitivity to color carries much of the performance, and Dutoit proves equally alert to the various woodwind “commentaries” along the way to the brass enunciations of ardent heroics. A whiplash cadenza and an equally propelled coda bring a fine closure to the first movement.  More beautiful sounds for the Canzonetta, enhanced by close miking – courtesy of Balance Engineer Erdo Groot – of that 1716 Strad.  With the detonation heralding the mad Russian dance Finale, Steinbacher and Dutoit enjoy a true series of color antiphons, passing the infectious – and consistently repeated – rhythmic thrusts in various registers, augmented by double stops, flageolet effects, and ample rubato in the metric pulse.

It has been a joyful, colorful ride, enthusiastic and brilliantly performed at every turn in both, familiar concertos.  But in terms of imaginative programming, how far have we come, really?

—Gary Lemco

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