Notes and Editorial Reviews
SIBELIUS Violin Concerto1. Karelia Suite. The Swan of Tuonela. Valse lyrique, op. 96a. Valse triste, op. 44/1. Andante festivo, JS 34b. Finlandia • Andrew Davis, cond; 1Jennifer Pike (vn); Bergen PO • CHANDOS 5134 (SACD: 78:24)
it is; the recording of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto I’ve always wanted. Ironically, though, it’s not either of the two I’ve been wishing and waiting for, which would be ones by James Ehnes and Julia Fischer. No, this one comes out of left field as a complete surprise from a little-recorded violinist, Jennifer Pike, whose acquaintance I’ve made only once before when she joined the Doric String Quartet for a performance of Chausson’s Concert for Piano, Violin, and String Quartet on a Chandos CD I reviewed in 36:6. In fact, it was Pike’s contribution to that performance that redeemed the Doric Quartet for me, after it had batted out on three previous occasions. I’ve not heard Pike’s handful of other recordings, which include sonatas by Brahms, Schumann, Franck, Debussy, and Ravel, and a performance of Rózsa’s Violin Concerto.
“Perfect” is an absolute; so too, theoretically, is the speed of light, yet both real science and science fiction postulate conditions under which the speed of light can be exceeded. I would therefore propose to you that Jennifer Pike’s Sibelius Concerto is beyond perfect; it exists in the realm of the ideal.
In prior reviews, I’ve let it be known that the Sibelius is my all-time favorite violin concerto, and that over the years I’ve managed to acquire somewhere between 30 and 40 recordings of the piece—50 or 60 if I count the ones I still have on LP. I’ve also wished it were possible to combine the best features of various performances in order to come up with “The One.” I believe Jennifer Pike has ended that quest, for this is, without a doubt, the best Sibelius Violin Concerto I’ve ever heard.
From the shimmering tremolo in the strings that begin the work, to Pike’s whispered “Behold, I tell you a mystery” entrance, every moment, every breath, is filled with vibrating expectation and pulsating suspense. One moment, her tone seems to come from the dark recesses of Finland’s deep forests, and the next, it glints with the blue-white light of Sibelius’s icy landscapes.
Every tempo is perfectly judged, and Pike sails through the work’s most technically strenuous passages with not so much as a single scrape of her bow or a coarsening of her tone. Her harmonics alone—both natural and artificial—are breathtaking; every single one of them rings the way harmonics should when they’re hit just right. I could go on for paragraphs describing Pike’s miraculous performance, but I’ll content myself with describing one last aspect of her reading before moving on.
Few movements in all of music convey the rush of sexual ecstasy as explicitly as does the Adagio of this concerto. I’ve often thought it should come with an “X” rating. The way Sibelius builds towards the climax, driving towards it, backing away from it, then approaching it again, with the solo violin throbbing and pulsing over the heartbeat in the orchestra pounding ever faster, louder, and harder. When done right, it should set your own heart to racing and your palms to sweating. But much is critical to getting this movement just right, starting with the tempo. Too slow and the heightening sense of tension is lost; too fast, and the full impact of the climax is diminished. Heifetz with Beecham and the London Philharmonic, at 7:47, for example, sounds impatient with the foreplay and wants to be done with the deed with a minimum of moaning and shouting. Perlman with Previn and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, on the other hand, at 8:51, is too slow, running the risk of his partner falling asleep mid-coitus. Jennifer Pike splits the difference and gets it just right at 8: 16.
There are other telling details to consider too. In bar 21, having reached the first plateau in the ascent to rapture, the solo violin has a kind of shiver or shudder in the form of seven 32nd notes and two 16ths, which is then echoed, softer, in the next measure. Many violinists seem to take some liberties with this particular figure, interpreting it in a variety of ways, and teasing it to achieve different effects. Isaac Stern, for example, in his recording with Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra gives it a Jewish twist, making it sound like an old Chassid exhaling a sigh. It’s quite affecting, but I’m not sure it’s what Sibelius had in mind. It needs to sound like the quivering or shaking that attends the excited anticipation of what’s to come.
The crucial aspect of this figure is in its return immediately following the big orchestral climax 13 bars before the end. It’s a stroke of Sibelian genius, because now, the exact same shiver or shudder, which earlier expressed excited anticipation, now reflects its opposite, as all previous tension is released and drains away in a perfect sigh of exhaustion.
Among my many recordings of the piece, the closest any violinist has come to capturing the essence of that feeling—before Jennifer Pike, that is—is Pinchas Zukerman with Daniel Barenboim and the London Philharmonic on a Deutsche Grammophon LP I have. I believe that performance is available on a not widely circulated and perhaps no longer available CD on the Eloquence label. In any case, you need look no further because Pike nails it.
None of this would be possible, of course, without the participation and contributions of Andrew Davis, the Bergen Philharmonic, sound engineer Ralph Couzens, and the rest of the production team responsible for this stunning SACD recording. The Bergen’s brass players snarl their stentorian blasts with the best of them, and while I won’t go so far as to say this performance will wake the dead, I can pretty much promise it will rouse thy neighbors.
The remainder of the program, equally magnificently performed and recorded, is a kind of hit parade of Sibelius’s most popular orchestral works—Finlandia, Valse Triste, The Swan of Tuonela, the Andante festivo, and the Karelia Suite—and in one instance—the Valse lyrique—a piece not so well known, which began as the concluding number in a suite for solo piano. Sibelius subsequently pulled it from the suite and scored it as a stand-alone piece for orchestra.
With the release of this recording, the now 24-year-old, prize-winning Jennifer Pike can no longer be considered an up and coming artist, for as far as I’m concerned, she has done up and come. She has arrived and can be numbered among today’s top violin virtuosos. This one is going on my 2014 Want List for sure.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
***** (out of 5)
One of the finest ever actual recordings… giving Jennifer Pike's violin a tremendous sense of presence. And she plays it with impressive mastery. She inclines to the bittersweet Tchaikovskian view… This is a marvelously warm, flowing and passionate performance… Davis matches her with a rich-textured, powerful reading.
– BBC Music Magazine Read less
Works on This Recording
Concerto for Violin in D minor, Op. 47 by Jean Sibelius
Jennifer Pike (Violin)
Sir Andrew Davis
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra
Written: 1903-1905; Finland
Length: 31 Minutes 6 Secs.
Karelia Suite, Op. 11 by Jean Sibelius
Sir Andrew Davis
Written: 1893; Finland
Length: 15 Minutes 43 Secs.
Finlandia, Op. 26 by Jean Sibelius
Sir Andrew Davis
Length: 8 Minutes 16 Secs.
Violin Concerto in D Minor, Op. 47: I. Allegro moderato
Violin Concerto in D Minor, Op. 47: II. Adagio di molto
Violin Concerto in D Minor, Op. 47: III. Allegro ma non tanto
Karelia Suite, Op. 11: I. Intermezzo: Moderato
Karelia Suite, Op. 11: II. Ballade: Tempo di menuetto
Karelia Suite, Op. 11: III. Alla marcia: Moderato
Lemminkainen Suite, Op. 22: II. The Swan of Tuonela
3 Pieces, Op. 96: Valse lyrique, Op. 96a
Valse triste, Op. 44, No. 1
Andante festivo (version for string orchestra)
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