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Berg, Beethoven: Violin Concertos / Wdr Symphony Orchestra, Et Al

Release Date: 10/27/2009 
Label:  Orfeo   Catalog #: 778091   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Alban BergLudwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Arabella Steinbacher
Conductor:  Andris Nelsons
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Cologne West German Radio Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BERG Violin Concerto. BEETHOVEN Violin Concerto Arabella Steinbacher (vn); Andris Nelsons, cond; WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln ORFEO 778 091 (75: 22)

Neither quite distorted tonality nor sweet-tempered atonality, Berg’s Violin Concerto straddles two harmonic worlds, settling comfortably perhaps in neither. Early recordings on LP varied from the angular one by Louis Krasner (Columbia ML-4857), who commissioned it, to the more luxuriant one by Read more André Gertler (Angel 3509, re-released on Hungaroton HCD 31635). Isaac Stern recorded it in 1959 (originally as Columbia MS 5773 and MS 6373, and re-released on Sony 64504), as did Itzhak Perlman in 1978 and Anne-Sophie Mutter in 1992 (Deutsche Grammophon 437 092-2, 17:1)—among others, including Pinchas Zukerman, Rebecca Hirsch, Daniel Hope, and Mark Kaplan, to name a few. I don’t remember any of my schoolmates studying it in the 1960s, although composition majors used to buy and study its miniature score.

Arabella Steinbacher, who enjoys the support of Anne-Sophie Mutter—as mentioned, one of its champions on CD—integrates the violin part into the orchestral web (as do the engineers), where it perhaps belongs, although her voice emerges strongly in the ethereal passages toward the end of the first movement. She and Andris Nelsons seem to have focused on the emotional journey (the innocence, struggles, and death of 18-year-old Manon Gropius) rather than on either the score’s technical threads or its tonal ones (in that sense, their reading comes closer to Gertler’s than to Krasner’s, or, more recently, to Mutter’s, which seems by comparison static and focused rather on individual sonorities than on the grand dramatic arch. In fact, their lush relaxation moments before the “catastrophe” seem almost Romantically idyllic and make the impending terrors all the more ominous. Steinbacher must have conceived this work almost as a standard Violin Concerto, minimizing its difficulties for listeners. If the Orchestra resolves the final struggle almost too quickly, the soloist’s voice brings the expected—and, here, highly satisfying—emollient. From the three recordings that once appeared regularly in Schwann’ s catalog back in the early 1960s (those by Louis Krasner, Ivry Gitlis, and André Gertler), the numbers have grown. Steinbacher’s may be the first I’ve heard to normalize the work so thoroughly while sacrificing nothing of its highly idiosyncratic character. It might make a particularly good introduction to the style for conservative explorers just a bit hesitant to get their ears wet.

Orfeo’s recorded sound reveals a great deal of timbral detail in the opening tutti of Beethoven’s Concerto. The Orchestra plays with authority and imposing sonorousness, and the same might be said of the soloist; but it soon becomes clear that her reading lies more on the lyrical side than on the dramatic one. Her sensitive exploration of the first movement’s middle section, for example, recalls the general opinion that Franz Clement, for whom Beethoven wrote the Concerto, played sweetly and graciously. Still, her reading doesn’t exhibit either the high degree of clarity nor the silvery purity of Janine Jansen’s in her recent recording for Decca (B0013281-02). Neither does it seem so highly individual, though she enters after the cadenza at a leisurely tempo that allows listeners to luxuriate in one of the Concerto’s sublimely tranquil moments. By the way, while the notes suggest that she might be playing Beethoven’s cadenzas (to his own piano version, transcribed by Wolfgang Schniederhan), the booklet program gives them as Kreisler’s. They’re Kreisler’s. What passed as pleasant relaxation at the end of the first movement threatens to become mere sluggishness in the slow movement. The finale reintroduces the first movement’s mellifluousness. While hers may not be the most propulsive reading, therefore, it lies in the main stream, with a strong vein of melodiousness but with little of the sense of daring she exhibited in her collection, “Violino Latino,” Orfeo C 686 061 B, 32:4.

In a personal note, Steinbacher informs readers that she had played both Concertos with her recently deceased father, to whom she’s dedicated the performances. If her reading of Beethoven’s Concerto provides little that’s new or unmistakably hers, her playing of Berg’s Concerto suffices in its rhetorical flow to earn a recommendation for the entire program.

FANFARE: Robert Maxham
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Works on This Recording

Concerto for Violin by Alban Berg
Performer:  Arabella Steinbacher (Violin)
Conductor:  Andris Nelsons
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Cologne West German Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1935; Austria 
Concerto for Violin in D major, Op. 61 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Arabella Steinbacher (Violin)
Conductor:  Andris Nelsons
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Cologne West German Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: Classical 
Written: 1806; Vienna, Austria 

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