SIBELIUS: Violin Concerto in D, Op. 47; BARBER: Violin Concerto, Op. 14; PAUL BEN-HAIM: Three Songs Without Words (Premiere Recording) – Zina Schiff, violin/ MAV Sym. Orch./ Avlana Eisenberg – MSR Classics MS 1459, 65:45 [Distr. by Albany] ***1/2:
Zina Schiff is a fine violinist; no arguing this. Whether or not her versions of the two main pieces are competitive with the larger corpus of available recordings is something else. On the whole I think she is; though she does not display the brilliant sparkle of her teacher Heifetz, she also brings a degree of warmth to her playing that I think he (intentionally) shunned. Her intonation, while generally excellent, is not as spot on as his, as some exposed moments in the Sibelius particularly demonstrate, and this concerto especially benefits from both an impassioned approach and icy glacier-like technical formidability. In fact I found the first two movements of the Sibelius to be quite competitive and finely-wrought. But in the third movement she takes the “ma non tanto” directions of the score too literally, and the movement seems to plod, the composer’s own ¾ war-like undergirding not designed as “overly slow” either, and I am afraid that Schiff falls into the literality trap, sapping the movement of power and affect.
Paul Ben-Haim (1897-1984) was a violinist, and his Three Songs Without Words shows us the fine way that the instrument adapted to his wordless vocal arias. Ben-Haim was booted from Germany for his Jewishness, emigrated to Israel, and established an important school of Israeli and Middle Eastern composers who also found themselves in their home away from home in the nascent state. His music is not unlike that of Bloch: romantic and spacious, and he wrote in many genres. He was a favorite of the young Leonard Bernstein, who championed several of his works and made recordings of them. Schiff is right at home here also, and gives subtle and lovely readings of these pieces.
The Barber Concerto for Violin was originally a two-movement work interrupted by the war. The notes to this release don’t quite get the story right. The man who complained that the original third movement was “too easy”, Iso Briselli, demanded a rewrite. Barber acquiesced (though never agreed), and created one of the most difficult perpetual motions in the literature, which the notes say Briselli then said was “too difficult”, which is not true—there is no evidence to this statement. Briselli felt that the movement was out-of-character with the other two and thought a slam-bang ending would make it one of the great American Violin Concertos. He was right—the Barber is the most played American concerto and one of the most played concertos of the twentieth century. Many have criticized the last movement as being totally out of character with the rest of the concerto, and there is some truth in that. However, Barber, ever the superb craftsman with never a wasted note, makes it work in the end and in many ways the piece really does need this last blazing presto. The piece took a while to enter the repertory, not for its lack of worth, but because the times Barber was forced to work in were littered with avant-gardists who were redefining music as we know it, and it took a while to catch on. Schiff plays it very well indeed, though what I mainly miss here is a lack of orchestral heft, especially in the middle movement where the drama and pathos are so intense. Isaac Stern, Hillary Hahn, and Robert McDuffie enjoy this, but Schiff’s reading is still a fine one.
I had not heard of the MAV Symphony Orchestra, supposedly one of Hungary’s three best, and they play very well indeed. Schiff’s daughter, Avlana Eisenberg, is the conductor here, so the effort must have been particularly gratifying for both. Sound is warm and analog-like, as I have stated before about MSR recordings, and it works great here. This was close to being really terrific, but as there are some caveats I can’t push it into the top tier. Nevertheless, I will return to it, especially for the Barber.