Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto – a quick guide to the best recordings

Gramophone Thu 16th February 2017

A quick guide to the finest recordings of one of the most frequently performed concertos in the repertoire

Violin Concerto. Octet

James Ehnes vn Philharmonia Orchestra / Vladimir Ashkenazy; Musicians of the Seattle Chamber Music Society

Onyx

Bringing something new to established repertoire: surely that’s the ultimate test of any artist. If so, James Ehnes has done it again. The first thing that hits you about Ehnes’s reading is the rhythmic propulsion of the concerto’s outer movements, which lifts the music, revealing its glorious bone structure. In the hands of lesser musicians than Ehnes and Ashkenazy this could simply sound fast, yet there is so much compelling, beautifully observed phrasing that the effect is instead completely uplifting. It’s there again in the first movement of the Octet, and once more the sense is of a joyous, exhilarating ride rather than anything overly driven. Ehnes is a musician of consummate imagination (and technique) coupled with a lack of ego that is completely winning. Just sample the way he and his Seattle Chamber Music colleagues judge the coda of the Octet’s Allegro moderato ma con fuoco. Con fuoco indeed!

Another aspect which is particularly winning is the creaminess of Ehnes’s lower register, so you really appreciate the lows (literally) as well as the highs in the Concerto. The Andante movements of both works are characterised by a caressing but never cloying approach. As for the Octet, sample the Scherzo and see if you’re not won over. Of course, everyone has their own favourite in this much-recorded work – but absolutely don’t overlook this version.

 

Violin Concerto with Bruch Violin Concerto No 1 Schubert Rondo in A, D438

Nigel Kennedy vn English Chamber Orchestra / Jeffrey Tate

Warner Classics

These are exceptionally strong and positive performances, vividly recorded. When it comes to the two main works, Kennedy readily holds his own against all comers. His view of the Mendelssohn has a positive, masculine quality established at the very start. He may at first seem a little fierce, but fantasy goes with firm control, and the transition into the second subject on a descending arpeggio (marked tranquillo) is radiantly beautiful, the more affecting by contrast with the power of what has gone before.

Kennedy is unerringly helped by Jeffrey Tate’s refreshing and sympathetic support. Though it’s the English Chamber Orchestra accompanying, there’s no diminution of scale. With full and well-balanced sound, the piece even seems bigger, more symphonic than usual. In the slow movement Kennedy avoids sentimentality in his simple, songful view. The coda is always a big test in this work, and Kennedy’s and Tate’s reading is among the most powerful and exciting on record.

The Bruch brings another warm and positive performance, consistently sympathetic, with the orchestra once more adding to the power. Kennedy’s more than a match for rival versions, again bringing a masculine strength which goes with a richly expressive yet unsentimental view of Bruch’s exuberant lyricism, as in the central slow movement.

 

Violin Concerto with Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto

Ray Chen vn Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra / Daniel Harding

Sony Classical

Ray Chen, Gramophone’s One to Watch in February 2011, played these concertos at the Menuhin Competition in 2008 (Mendelssohn) and the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels in 2009 (Tchaikovsky). It’s easy to appreciate why he won first prize on both occasions. Magnificent technique, of course; the trickiest passages seem like child’s play to him. But what impresses most is Chen’s musicianship – he’s able to make the listener aware of the emotional import of each phrase, apparently spontaneously, as though he’s only just considered playing it that way. Take the way he plays the two principal themes in the first movement of the Tchaikovsky. Both recur several times, with different continuations, and on each occasion Chen is able to find a new tone colour, a different touch of subtle rubato. In his hands, the music is like a living thing; one senses that each performance will have its own individual character. In the finale of this concerto, he values musical character over sheer brilliance, showing a strong feeling for the drama of the solo introduction, phrasing the rondo theme in the most lively way and, later on, capturing the full character of the folk-inspired episodes while avoiding any grotesque exaggeration. Similarly, in the finale of the Mendelssohn, he embraces the music’s playfulness, its occasional moments of lyricism and the times when attack is needed. In the middle of the movement, when the orchestra takes the main theme, he’s happy to retire from the foreground and play a decorative role.

Chen also shows an impressive command of the larger musical paragraphs, as in the long melody that makes up the first part of the Mendelssohn’s Andante. In the preceding Allegro his command of the expressive arc of the lyrical second theme is just as enthralling, even though here he has to collaborate with the woodwind players, who share the melody.

In this passage, too, Chen introduces a number of the sort of portamentos that the work’s dedicatee, Ferdinand David, would have used to heighten the expressive effect. He does so discreetly and tastefully, and, I think, makes a strong case for the need to connect notes in this way, if the touching quality of the melody is to be fully brought out. Daniel Harding and his Swedish orchestra give magnificent support and the balance, while sounding entirely natural in its perspective, allows all the important solo lines to make their mark. A combination of fine playing and well-defined recording allows the varied timbres of the woodwind, horns and trumpets to make a particularly vivid impact. One is reminded more forcefully than usual that both concertos are the work of masters of orchestration; Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky delight in finding colourful and evocative settings for the soloist and a variety of ways of animating the musical dialogue. The overall sound is rich and well balanced, and there’s an infectious air of enthusiasm and commitment.

In the Mendelssohn, after Chen has completed his first short solo with two splendidly bold virtuoso flourishes, the full orchestra enters with inspiring enthusiasm, fully endorsing the composer’s Allegro molto appassionato. And the big central tutti in the Tchaikovsky’s first movement, where the lyrical main theme is transformed into a triumphal march, and which sometimes sounds disturbingly brash, emerges here as a natural culmination as the violins play with full-blooded romantic feeling. The balance between strings and wind, too, has been perfectly judged. Harding’s pacing of each movement is spot on – the two opening allegros, in particular, have a powerful cumulative vitality. As both these movements near their end, a staged increase in speed is indicated and here the collaboration between soloist and orchestra is exemplary, maintaining and gradually intensifying the momentum.

At this stage in his career, Ray Chen doesn’t offer the kind of interpretation that challenges traditional ways of playing the music. In the Tchaikovsky, for instance, though generally adhering to the composer’s text, he makes use of several of the familiar little embellishments, octave transpositions and variations that generations of violinists have liked to add. By contrast, James Ehnes’s recent recording, immaculately played and powerfully expressive, demonstrates how it’s quite unnecessary to change anything Tchaikovsky wrote. I’m happy, however, to trade textural purity for Chen’s delightful air of spontaneity, especially considering that Ehnes’s accompaniment (Ashkenazy and the Sydney Symphony) isn’t quite in the same league as Harding’s. Similarly, in the Mendelssohn, Christian Tetzlaff’s swift, light account is extremely persuasive, especially in the finale, and he demonstrates how effective the first-movement cadenza can be while still following exactly the composer’s markings – particularly the tempo indications. Chen, at this point, is content to follow the traditional modifications of tempo that are not shown in the score (though he does play all the high harmonics that Mendelssohn surely intended). But in this concerto, too, Chen’s warmly communicative manner is something to be treasured over interpretative correctness. All in all, a most impressive release.

 

Violin Concerto. Piano Trios

Patrick Demenga vc Enrico Pace pf Salzburg Camerata / Leonidas Kavakos vn

Sony Classical

Kavakos offers a compelling, unsugary reading of the Concerto (where, for a change, you sense the legacy of Beethoven as much as anyone). But lack of heart-on-sleeve isn’t to suggest in any way a lack of expression: quite the reverse – how Kavakos revels in those moments of introspection, the violin looking down from way, way up in the stratosphere. There’s plenty of fine detail, too, both in the solo part and the orchestra, but there’s always a sense of it arising out of the music. The Camerata’s playing is an additional delight, creating an intimate rapport with the soloist. In lesser hands, Kavakos’s moderate tempo for the slow movement might threaten to drag, but if the interpretation is sufficiently interesting, it can still convince. The finale is less an explosion of exuberance but Kavakos’s filigree lightness bodes well for the chamber music and the climactic build-up is utterly life-enhancing.

The trios are on a similar level, with Kavakos joined by two superb musicians. It’s striking in the second movement of the D minor Trio that they observe Mendelssohn’s detached markings – unlike many who can’t resist the temptation to swoon here. The slow movement is beautifully poised and the finale justifiably exultant.

 

Violin Concerto with Bruch Violin Concerto No 1 & Scottish Fantasy

Chung; Montreal SO / Dutoit

Decca

A personable and polished alliance from Chung and Dutoit, glowingly engineered.

 

Violin Concerto with Beethoven Violin Concerto

Bell; Camerata Academica Salzburg / Norrington

Sony Classical

Not everyone will go a bundle on Bell’s own first-movement cadenza but this remains a likeable, stimulating account. Perky, clean-limbed playing from the Salzburg chamber orchestra under Norrington, and very realistic sound.

 

Violin Concerto with Beethoven Violin Concerto

Jascha Heifetz vn Boston Symphony Orchestra / Charles Munch

RCA

Munch and his distinguished band lend memorable support to Jascha Heifetz in much-loved accounts of the Beethoven and Mendelssohn violin concertos (taped in November 1955 and February 1959 respectively). The legendary fiddler is on characteristically immaculate, agile form throughout, and both performances remain among the most satisfying available. 

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