Notes and Editorial Reviews
21 Hungarian Dances
Baiba Skride (vn); Sakari Oramo, cond; Royal Stockholm PO;
Lauma Skride (pn)
ORFEO 829 112A (2 CDs: 94:12)
According to the interview included in the booklet, Baiba Skride considers Johannes Brahms’s Violin Concerto a romantic work, despite its strength and gravity. Her entry after Sakari Oramo’s orchestral introduction leaves little doubt of
her own brilliance and strength (in the concerto, she plays the 1725 Wilhelmj Stradivari, which she considers brilliant and powerful), and while she may relax a bit in the lyrical passages that follow (allowing her the freedom to explore their expressivity), the strong rhythmic and structural underpinnings remain firm below the surface and reemerge in the angular fragments. Still, she manages to integrate the concerto’s (and the reading’s) disparate elements, and if, as it seems from the interview, she intended to play upon this sort of dynamic duality, that’s in fact what she’s actually achieved. The engineers have captured Skride close up, in a balance (and with an amount of reverberation) that might have been more popular in an earlier time (think of those Columbia recordings by Isaac Stern). But then, Skride’s performance itself, strong-minded and personal, also recalls the grand manner of that earlier era—especially so because Skride relies neither on mannered eccentricity reminiscent of Anne-Sophie Mutter’s more recent experiments nor on bland correctness and purity to make an impression. There’s a portamento here and there, to be sure, but hardly seeming artificially cultivated, they only add to the sense of old-fashioned grandeur. Skride remarks, as did Pablo Sarasate more condescendingly, on the oboe’s favored position in the slow movement (playing, as Sarasate contended, the only good tune in the entire concerto), but her obbligato passages rise to so high a level of lyrical expressivity that they almost steal the limelight. In the finale, Skride plays with aggressive brilliance, and perhaps here the Wilhelmj Stradivari itself becomes most apparent, especially in arpeggiated passagework that rises into the higher registers. Oramo and the orchestra enthusiastically join Skride in this vigorous and sonorous ethnically tinted romp.
Skride plays the 1734 Baron von Felitzsch Stradivari, on loan to her from Gidon Kremer, which she describes as an “adult” violin that has made her search again to find her own sound. She’s captured very close up, and the darker timbre of the violin becomes immediately apparent. Still, her playing retains the almost identifiable warmth and richness—as well as a great deal of the brightness—she displayed in the concerto, though perhaps with the lights slightly dimmed. She and her sister Lauma take the dances in order, and although she describes them in the interview as being awkwardly written for the violin—to such an extent that she can’t adopt the headier tempos an orchestra might take—still, the double-stopped section of the Second sounds dashing and she and Lauma (who, in the interview, makes it clear that in these works she has deferred to her sister) play the first section of the Third with tantalizing rhythmic piquancy. If at times in the Fourth and at the beginning of the Fifth she sounds a bit heavy-handed, that may be partly due to the arrangements themselves; to play them interestingly may be to risk this heaviness. And their sense of the pieces’ romantic rhetoric and freedom as well as the paprika seasoning they employ liberally in the end lift the performances far above plodding regularity, as, for example, in the Eighth. Sometimes, as in the Ninth, dynamic contrasts add a great deal to the performances’ interest; sometimes, as in the 18th, it’s due to the rhythmic vivacity of their playing; sometimes it’s simply a matter of their attention to the pieces’ not entirely straightforward styles, as in the 15th; and sometimes, as in the 16th, Baiba’s tonal command makes the point almost unaided.
32:2, reviewing a set of Brahms’s dances performed by violinist Hagai Shaham and pianist Arnon Erez on Hyperion CDA67663, I took the opportunity to consider other readings I’d encountered: Robert Gerle’s on Westminster LP (19193 and, in stereo, 17093—David K. Nelson’s first exposure to the set on recordings and mine, as well), the rerelease of Aaron Rosand’s (Musical Concepts 121,
31:2, reviewed by David in 16:5 as Biddulph LAW 003), and Marat Bisengaliev’s on Naxos 8.553026, reviewed by David in
19:5, as well, of course, as Shaham’s. All the violinists except Gerle, who arranged the dances in groups he deemed more effective in performance, have simply played them in order. Everyone except Gerle has also rounded out the program: Shaham and Bisengaliev with pieces by Joachim, Rosand with Brahms’s three sonatas, and now Skride, with his concerto. On the whole, she seems less importunate than Rosand and less mannered than Shaham, who delays beats here, creating an especially exotic effect, but she’s hardly so straightforward as Bisengaliev. For her consistently interesting readings, therefore, of the dances, as well as for her magisterial account of the concerto, Skride’s debut on Orfeo deserves an enthusiastic recommendation.
FANFARE: Robert Maxham
I don’t believe I’ve previously heard the Latvian violinist, Baiba Skride but she has a strong pedigree, not least as the winner of the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels in 2001. I see she’s garnered praise on MusicWeb International already. Mark Berry reviewed her favourably for Seen and Heard in Brahms – the Double Concerto – at the 2009 Edinburgh International Festival. Evan Dickerson enthused about her disc of solo violin pieces in 2005 and was even more impressed shortly afterwards by a disc pairing concertos by Shostakovich and Janá?ek. Summing up that disc, he wrote: “She is a serious artist no question, and whilst some artists politely ask their audiences to listen Baiba Skride demands their total attention.” On the evidence of these new Brahms recordings I’d agree with Evan’s view.
Besides the concerto performance, to which I’ll come in a moment, Miss Skride offers all twenty-one of the Hungarian Dances in the arrangement for violin and piano made by Joachim. I must confess that these pieces aren’t among those I’d call indispensable Brahms. However, their inclusion here is intelligent, not least on account of Joachim’s connection with the concerto. Also, it has to be said that Joachim’s arrangements work very well indeed, especially since the violin can suggest so strongly the Central European gypsy fiddling tradition. In the very interesting interview with the Skride sisters that serves as the notes, Baiba comments that the violin part in Joachim’s arrangements “is written in a very un-violinistic manner”. However, she seems completely at home with the music, despite all the technical challenges.
For these performances Baiba Skride is accompanied by her sister, Lauma and the siblings make a strong and effective partnership – I believe they regularly play chamber music together. A positive impression is made from the outset by Baiba Skride’s strong, deep tone at the start of the very first dance, in G minor. The fifth dance, in the same key, is fiery and spiky and in the following dance, in B major, both musicians display real dash. In this dance also the little hesitations and the speed changes are all negotiated very well. There’s more dash – and a touch of devilment – in the twelfth dance, in D minor while both numbers 14, in D minor, and 16, in G minor once again, are ardently delivered. In the eighteenth dance, in D major, I particularly got the feeling that the sisters were having fun – as I’m sure is the case throughout the set; it’s just that the impression is strongest of all in this number. The final dance, in E minor, provides a vivacious finale.
These are slight pieces but if they’re played, as they are here, with spirit, enjoyment and skill the dances provide lots of entertainment. This is a collection into which to dip, rather like a bag of sweets, to extract a few choice morsels at a time.
The Violin Concerto is much more substantial fare and Baiba Skride’s account of it is an impressive one. In her sister she had a fine and sympathetic partner for the Hungarian Dances and she’s equally fortunate in Sakari Oramo as the conductor for the concerto – she comments in the booklet how it helped that Oramo himself is a violinist.
The first movement is spaciously conceived. In this performance it lasts for 23:49, which was about the longest that I could readily find in my collection. By contrast, in Nathan Milstein’s aristocratic recording with Steinberg (EMI, 1953/4) this movement occupies 19:36, without sounding rushed and Jascha Heifetz with Reiner (RCA) gets through it a mere 18:52 – but I find his laser-like approach rather too brisk and unyielding. I did some more detailed comparisons with the David Oistrakh/George Szell recording (EMI, 1969) and, perhaps more relevantly, with that by another female virtuoso, Ginette Neveu (with Issay Dobrowen, EMI, 1946). The Neveu comparison is particularly interesting because the ages at which these two players recorded the concerto are not too dissimilar: Miss Skride was born in 1981 while Ginette Neveu was a matter of days past her 27th birthday when she set down her famous recording of the Brahms concerto.
As I said, the first movement is spacious in this new recording: perhaps the performers take more expressive risks than they would have done in the studio. Sakari Oramo shapes the long orchestral introduction sensitively and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic plays very well. Miss Skride’s first entry (2:44) is strongly projected, though the sparks don’t fly off her bow in the way that one has heard in some other performances. Neveu is fiery at this point while Oistrakh really digs in, producing a big, gutsy sound. In passing, it was some time since I’d listened to this much-admired recording. Hearing it alongside performances by two female virtuosi really pointed up what a masculine performance it is. I only got to see the booklet after I’d listened to the concerto several times and had drafted my review. I was interested but, on reflection, not surprised to read Baiba Skride extolling the beauties of Brahms’s music. At one point she says “I find that Brahms, despite all his power and weightiness, is also very romantic. Personally, I sometimes find him very delicate, you could almost say: very feminine” [my italics]. I think she brings out that feminine element that she evidently finds in the concerto very successfully – and very naturally. It’s a refreshing approach.
It’s soon clear that Baiba Skride is going to give an intensely poetic, singing account of the solo part. Her technique sounds flawless – as one would expect at this level – but I really admired the consistency of her tone, especially above the stave, as well as her ability to sustain the line. At 4:27, when the soloist muses on the melody with which the oboe responded to the first theme at the start of the concerto, Miss Skride’s playing is beautifully relaxed – and how well she and Oramo prepare for that moment; she sings this episode as sweetly as does Ginette Neveu. It’s not all sweetness, though; there’s ample fire and excitement in the passage between 11:36 and 13:10, for instance. The treatment of the Joachim cadenza (from 18:13) is surprisingly thoughtful for quite a bit of its duration – Oistrakh’s performance is far stronger and more obviously flamboyant – but Miss Skride provides display where necessary. The passage leading out of the cadenza, where the orchestra rejoins the soloist, is, in Skride’s hands, as sustained and beautiful as I can recall hearing it. Here the soloist is rapt, ethereal and dreamy whereas Ginette Neveu sounds much more intense.
The slow movement, introduced by a distinguished rendition of the wonderful oboe solo, is a gift for a player with Baiba Skride’s lyrical talent. Her glorious, singing tone is heard to wonderful advantage in these pages. In fact, everyone involved in this performance – soloist, conductor and orchestra – bring great sensitivity to the movement. Ginette Neveu’s violin also sings beautifully but she plays with a greater intensity. Some may prefer that but Miss Skride’s unforced lyricism brings its own rewards.
The finale is taken at a reasonably steady pace – it lasts 8:08 in this reading, whereas Oistrakh’s much weightier reading clocks in at 8:33 and Neveu requires 7:44. However, even if the basic pulse is fairly steady there’s no lack of joy in the playing and the music has life. I did wonder if Miss Skride could have let herself go just a bit more – and her conductor too; perhaps the performance lacks the last degree of exuberance. But it’s still a highly enjoyable reading and there’s good energy in the final 6/8 pages. I think there’s perhaps more of the gypsy in the way that Ginette Neveu delivers this finale and that’s appropriate, I feel. By the side of these two young ladies, David Oistrakh is much more deliberate and heavy-toned. To be truthful, his performance sounds ponderous by comparison.
Baiba Skride’s reading of the Brahms concerto may not be to all tastes. I can imagine some listeners thinking that her expansive way with the first movement is just a bit too much of a good thing. However, the concerto is a work of almost inexhaustible richness and the music can accommodate a variety of approaches. The sheer beauty of tone and the long, seamless lines that are a feature of Miss Skride’s performance, especially in the first two movements, are captivating and this winningly lyrical account of one of the handful of truly great violin concertos is worth serious consideration by collectors.
The recorded sound in the Hungarian Dances and in the concerto is very good. The discs are handsomely packaged and the very useful booklet is in German, English and French.
-- John Quinn, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Concerto for Violin in D major, Op. 77 by Johannes Brahms
Baiba Skride (Violin)
Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra
Written: 1878; Austria
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