SIBELIUS: Violin Concerto in D Minor, OP. 47; ELGAR: Violin Concerto in B Minor, Op. 61 – Ida Haendel, violin/City of Birmingham Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle
Testament SBT 1444, 79:40 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:
Polish violin virtuoso Ida Haendel (b. 1928) appears in two staples of her imposing repertory, the Sibelius Concerto (7 September 1993) and the Elgar Concerto (22 February 1984) at Royal Festival Hall with Simon Rattle and his Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Haendel’s half-century identification with the Sibelius Concerto has assumed a legendary status, and certainly her inscription with Paavo Berglund solidified the mythic quality of her conception. Her approach remains decisively slow in tempo–and here we note its similarity to the realization by Kulenkampff and Furtwaengler–projecting a ravishing depth into every note. Much like another Sibelius votary, Guila Bustabo, Haendel applies a wicked bow arm and a rasping, gritty tone to the proceedings, etching out a Northern sensibility of glacial magnitude, a fortress of sound. The stoical Adagio di molto, especially, casts a panorama before us which might have appealed to film director David Lean for one of his vistas for Doctor Zhivago. A surprisingly limber polonaise breaks out for the third movement, its polar bears notwithstanding. The severity of the melodic line never falters, the tensions irresistible. From out of the welter of icy tumult the violin screams, whistles, and trills like an Arctic banshee, or “woman wailing for her demon lover.” We feel this performance in the blood, a spiritual kinship both palpable and inevitable.
Some years ago, Testament issued a performance with Ida Haendel of the Elgar Concerto with Sir Adrian Boult (SBT 1146), to which one professional violinist responded, “It’s absolute perfection technically; no one could play it better–but it totally misses the style.” Happily, the present collaboration with Simon Rattle avoids the inflated rhetorical posture of the earlier inscription. Haendel opts for a leaner, though equally lyrical sensibility, a fiercer sense of drive that we ascribe to the several Menuhin renditions, though his have not Haendel’s acerbic often savage tone. Rattle’s orchestral contribution remains quite taut–and at quick tempos–fixing upon the through-composed nature of the first movement melodies, their having “one soul,” as the composer inscribed his preface to the score. The Andante obviously held great personal meaning for the composer, since the B-flat movement pours out an endless love-song to which the violin solo contributes in virtually every bar. Haendel’s purity of line cannot be denied, nor should it be. An emotional urgency permeates the music, as though two lovers can feel “time’s wing’d chariot hurrying near.”
Haendel’s Allegro molto last movement suddenly revealed to me its strong, melodic similarity to the same movement in the Busoni Concerto in D, except for the sheer endurance required in the Elgar, capped by the remarkable culminating cadenza, which Haendel characterizes as “coming at the moment when most composer’s would think of finishing.” Given both performers’ immaculate sense of structural design, the pacing for this vivid performance never slackens, though the musical periods find their shape and formal resonance, their inspiration derived from elements of the first movement. No wonder the audience bursts out with applause as warm and grateful as the music had been rife with the love of many years’ happy familiarity.