SIBELIUS Violin Concerto
Hearing these two new versions of the Sibelius Violin Concerto prompts the question: is it the last of the great Romantic concertos or the harbinger of a darker, more disturbing 20th-century tradition? Jennifer Pike’s account stresses beauty of tone, with elegant phrasing and a smooth, precise technique that makes light of all the virtuoso challenges. She benefits from exceptional recording quality, the violin in natural balance with an accompaniment whose individual instrumental colours appear clearly within the spacious ambience. Augustin Hadelich, by contrast, is closely recorded, with an overall sound that places clarity above creating the impression of a resonant concert hall. His performance, scrupulously following Sibelius’s dynamic marks, stresses the almost desperate, passionate character of much of the music; in his intense commitment he reminded me of Camilla Wicks’s celebrated 1952 recording. In the finale, his playing has tremendous energy, and though he certainly does not eschew beauty of tone – for instance in the enunciation of the Adagio’s melody – one always feels that emotional expression is at the heart of his performance. Jennifer Pike appears a little more detached. It’s lovely playing, with a range of expressive colouring, and many of the quieter moments have an evocative power missing in the Hadelich account. But, forced to choose, I’d go for Hadelich; he gives us Sibelius without any gloss or varnish.
As to the other items on the discs: the Bergen recording brings together an attractive programme of popular Sibelius works, directed by Sir Andrew Davis with a sure touch – firm, poised rhythms, sensitive control of balance and texture and, in the more substantial pieces, a strong sense of structure. The Swan of Tuonela is powerfully evocative, with distinguished solo contributions from cor anglais and cello, and the whole orchestra brings real enthusiasm to its account of Finlandia. And the top-class quality of the recording imparts a special magic to Sibelius’s orchestral textures.
Augustin Hadelich adapts his style most successfully to the more playful, lighter idiom of the Sibelius Humoresques. And he and the Liverpool orchestra give a magnificent performance of Thomas Adès’s Violin Concerto, moving dramatically from the bright, penetrating sonorities of the opening movement to the sinister, almost brutal environment of the much longer central movement. At the end of this section the harsh atmosphere begins to mellow, but not for long, as the violin’s range is gradually and tragically limited, eventually confined to its two lowest notes.