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Sibelius: Violin Concerto; Barber: Violin Concerto; Ben-haim; Three Songs Without Words

Sibelius / Ben-haim / Barber / Schiff
Release Date: 10/08/2013 
Label:  Msr   Catalog #: 1459   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Jean SibeliusSamuel BarberPaul Ben-Haim
Performer:  Zina Schiff
Conductor:  Avlana Eisenberg
Orchestra/Ensemble:  MAV Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

SIBELIUS Violin Concerto. BEN-HAIM Three Songs without Words. BARBER Violin Concerto Zina Schiff (vn); Avlana Eisenberg, cond; MAV SO MSR 1459 (65:45)

Violinist Zina Schiff and her daughter, conductor Avlana Eisenberg, emphasize in their booklet notes the vocal quality of the three works on their program. And Schiff’s reading of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto does seem more Read more lyrical—and also more rhapsodic—than that of her one-time teacher, Jascha Heifetz. Occasionally, in fact, in the first movement, the motion almost seems to stop (she takes 16:57 in the first movement, compared to Heifetz’s 13: 37 in his second recording in 1959, and to 14:21 in his landmark first one in 1935); but Schiff’s strong, reedy tone in the lower registers still blossoms forth. On the whole, her (and Eisenberg’s) conception seems more dramatic than vocal—reminiscent, in a way, of Heifetz’s two studio recordings (a third, made with Leopold Stokowski but suppressed, isn’t readily available). The stasis that suggested itself in the first movement reappears in the second, but overwhelmed by the overall impression of dark brooding. The team adopts a moderate tempo in the Finale, the theme of which Schiff plays with almost dogged determination; but her tempo also allows her to focus attention on a great deal of detail and to give the impression of improvisation in the passages in which the solo cavorts above a pounding bass.

Paul Ben-Haim’s three songs appear for the first time in recordings, according to the booklet, in their guise as works for violin and orchestra. The first, Arioso, sounds atmospherically ethnic, limning what the notes describe as the heat of the Judean desert, both in the musical depiction and in the strongly suggestive performance. Schiff judiciously employs portamentos in the second, Ballad, representing an open-air marketplace. She’s ardent in the third, “Sephardic Melody.”

Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto would seem well suited to Schiff’s lyrical approach, and so it turns out to be in the opening of the first movement in her performance. But that smoldering lyricism pervades the entire movement in this ingratiating, patently personal reading by both Schiff and Eisenberg. The sense of languid brooding also dominates the slow movement; and, as in her performance of Sibelius’s Concerto, Schiff produces a richly and commanding tone, especially in the lower registers. Given their predispositions and understanding of the piece, Schiff and Eisenberg may seem to some listeners to demonstrate that the Finale (the second composed for the piece) doesn’t fit so well into the whole as perhaps the first might have. In Fanfare 34:1, I suggested that Dylana Jenson (on Mano a Mano) combined drama and warm-blooded lyricism in a manner similar to that of Andrés Cárdenes on Albany Troy 1148 (in Fanfare 33:4, he described his own reading as realizing the potential at which the early recordings of Isaac Stern and Robert Gerle only hinted). In the first movement, Schiff exhibits an even richer glow than does Jensen, but she’s hardly so vibrant in the Finale.

MSR’s clear recorded sound captures the bite of the brass instruments and plentiful orchestral detail throughout, especially in the Sibelius Concerto’s outer movements and in the finale of Barber’s. For those seeking an alternative recent recording of Sibelius’s work that combines strong technical command with searching improvisation, and those who look for similar qualities in Barber’s Concerto, Schiff’s coupling of these works with Ben-Haim’s strongly appealing songs should prove highly attractive. Strongly recommended.

FANFARE: Robert Maxham
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Works on This Recording

Concerto for Violin in D minor, Op. 47 by Jean Sibelius
Performer:  Zina Schiff (Violin)
Conductor:  Avlana Eisenberg
Orchestra/Ensemble:  MAV Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1903-1905; Finland 
Concerto for Violin, Op. 14 by Samuel Barber
Performer:  Zina Schiff (Violin)
Conductor:  Avlana Eisenberg
Orchestra/Ensemble:  MAV Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1939; USA 
Songs (3) without words for voice and orchestra/piano by Paul Ben-Haim
Performer:  Zina Schiff (Violin)
Conductor:  Avlana Eisenberg
Orchestra/Ensemble:  MAV Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1951; Israel 

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