SAINT-SAËNS Introduction and Rondo capriccioso. Violin Concerto No. 1. Romance. FAURÉ Pelléas et Mélisande: Suite. Berceuse, op. 16 • Deborah Nemtanu (vn); Thomas Zehetmair, cond; CO de Paris • MIRARE 193 (49:47)
Violinist Deborah Nemtanu’s reading of Saint-Read more style="font-style:italic">Saëns’s Introduction and Rondo capriccioso begins with a smoldering introduction and leads to a strutting rondo proper. She draws from her violin a dark, honeyed tone more reminiscent of Mischa Elman’s than Jascha Heifetz’s. Still, she plays the piece’s staccato runs with a sharp bite—as well as wringing touching sentiment from the pathetic episode. If at her tempo this isn’t a sparkling display of fireworks, many will find that more a strength than a weakness. Nemtanu has been named Violon solo super soliste of the Orchestre de chambre de Paris, and she proves to be as much soloist as concertmaster by disposition in the program’s first work.
Saint-Saëns served as Fauré’s mentor, and that may explain the presence on the program of his suite from Pelléas et Mélisande, in a sympathetic reading from Thomas Zehetmair and the ensemble (although an incomplete Violin Concerto by Fauré has been recorded several times, most notably perhaps by Philippe Graffin). At times in the well-known Sicilienne that constitutes its fourth movement, some may consider the somewhat diffuse textures to lack cohesion in the ensemble’s reading. The program continues with Saint-Saëns’s First Violin Concerto, a brief work (just over 12 minutes in Nemtanu’s performance) that, it’s been suggested, Saint-Saëns originally conceived as just a finale for the Concerto. Even those who dismiss this suggestion as pure poppycock (just try to find substantiation, if you can, in Michael Stegemann’s book on Saint-Saëns and the French solo concerto) should admit that the Concerto’s brevity makes the conjecture, however ill-founded, at least plausible. Jacques Thibaud recorded the Concerto, as did Ruggiero Ricci and Kyung-Wha Chung later on. Ricci, as he could on occasions when least expected, brought a haunting poetic sense to the Concerto, as he did in his 1964 recording with Max Rudolf and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and so does Nemtanu, though she stretches tempos more frequently than he did to make her point. This process creates its own system of compensations: what she gains in subtle expressivity she also seems to lose in forward motion, and at times listeners may feel that they’ve been pushed or pulled too frequently for comfort (and even that the effect has been carried out with a repertoire of excessively strong accentuation here and there). She and the ensemble bring the work to a brilliant conclusion that turns almost tongue-in-cheek at the end.
If the Concerto isn’t well known, the Romance may for many listeners prove to be even less so. Like the composer’s other violin pieces, this one mixes a certain sort of nostalgia with passages requiring a bold tone in the lower registers and sprightliness in its engaging passagework. Nemtanu adds to these desiderata rhetorical strength in recitative-like passages (even more pronounced in the Third Concerto). Jean Jacques Kantorow included the Romance in his selection of pieces by Saint-Saëns (as well as the Third Concerto) on BIS 0860 (Fanfare 21:6), as did Dong-Suk Kang on his (also including the Third Concerto) on Naxos 8.550752 (Fanfare 18:2). Kantorow sounds loamy and resonant, yet sprightly in subsidiary sections; Kang is almost glutinous in the main thematic sections (although always stylish and idiomatic); while Nemtanu falls somewhere in between—more liquid than Kang in the main theme, but articulating the secondary one less sharply. The program concludes with a reading of Fauré’s Berceuse, with Nemtanu, the notes suggest, conducting as well as playing the violin solo.
The recorded sound is generally clear and clean, with the solo violin placed well forward. For those who’ve followed the unfolding careers of Zehetmair and Nemtanu, this program will provide a welcome update. Others may wish to take advantage of landmark recordings of the individual pieces. Recommended, then, mostly to collectors of the first kind.
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