Beethoven Violin Concerto; Romances

Author: 
Michael Oliver

Beethoven Violin Concerto; Romances

  • Concerto for Violin and Orchestra
  • Romances
  • Concerto for Violin and Orchestra
  • Romances

Beethoven wrote no cadenzas for the Violin Concerto, but he provided no fewer than four for the piano and orchestra transcription of it that he prepared a year later. Joseph Swensen has transcribed those cadenzas for his own instrument, and his recording would be of capital interest if that were its only distinguishing feature. What he has apparently also done, however (other violinists please copy) is to consider the implications of Beethoven's dynamic markings in the Concerto. If you include those passages where the solo part is unmarked but where the instructions to the orchestra make it obvious that piano is intended, then indications of piano (or dolce) greatly exceed those of forte (fortissimo is very rare indeed). And that is how Swensen plays the work, with pure tone and precise articulation but with a rapt quietness in many passages that we are accustomed to hearing at a level mf or f. The meditative, inwardly lyrical aspects of the Concerto are emphasized, not at the expense of brilliance (indeed, passages of brilliance or of sudden fire are emphasized by the contrast) but with a hushed stillness that points up all those ways in which the Concerto is quite unlike those successors with which it is so often bracketed, not least by the opulent manner in which it is generally played. Swensen misses some of the humour of the finale, I feel (and his quite heavy accent on the second note of its theme seems mannered) but his seriousness elsewhere searches out the beautiful gravity at the heart of the music, and his phrasing of the slow movement's second subject is heart- and breathstopping. Previn is thoughtfully responsive to his soloist (he doesn't cut the ground from beneath his feet by making a sumptuous meal of the slow movement's opening pages, for example), the recording is excellent and the two Romances are demurely, reticently poised.
As to those cadenzas, that in the slow movement (linking to the finale) and the one unexpectedly placed at the end of the first episode in the Rondo are conventional enough: little bouquets of violinistic gestures. But the huge five-part set-piece in the first movement (it lasts for nearly six minutes), with its kettledrum obbligato, its strikingly violent modulations and satisfying return to the first subject is much more than an interesting change from the familiar Kreisler cadenza, while the brief solo at the end of the Rondo makes interesting (and structurally logical) use of material from its first episode. Swensen's is not a performance that you can readily compare with its (EMI) 'competitors'; Perlman's is more exciting (and a more complete view of the work, no doubt), and Zimmermann's classicism (with an orchestra of more 'authentic' dimensions) is attractive, but I suspect that I shall return to Swensen's at least as often as either.'

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