Review by Oakland May 7, 2011 (13 of 13 found this review helpful)
|My detailed comments on the wonderful Pentatone Dvorak, Szymanowski: Violin Concertos are long overdue. I have had this SACD for a good year and a half and actually offered brief comments at Hi-Rez forum in November 2009. On more than one occasion I was going to share more detailed thoughts about it but the unfamiliar (to me) Szymanowski (Concerto #1) threw me for a loop; I was not sure what to say about it. So, I deferred making more detailed comments until I heard it a few more times.
First, the Dvorak Violin Concerto and Romance, while they have never been an especial favorite I have always enjoyed them. But on the occasions I did reach for them I wondered why have I not played Dvorak works more often. (Works by Sibelius also invoke this feeling). I have only 3 recordings of Dvorak’s Violin Concerto and the Accardo/Davis Philips Lp (with Romance) has been the performance I have reached for almost exclusively over the years, that is until I purchased this Pentatone disc. I have reached for it even more since I saw Steinbacher in concert performing the Mozart Violin Concerto #4 a couple of months ago in San Francisco. Have I made a direct comparison of the Steinbacher/Janowski to the Accardo/Davis? Well, just the first two movements (side one of the Lp). I know the Accardo/Davis performance pretty well and for me Steinbacher/Janowski is at least it’s equal although, of course, not a photocopy. What can you say? Steinbacher is lyrical and/or dazzling precisely when the score calls for, all the while never seeming rigid or over rehearsed. The last movement of the Steinbacher/Janowski is longer than Accardo/Davis, for sure, but no less enjoyable (all repeats observed?).
Actually, the Szymanowski is the first work on the playbill. This undoubtedly helped bring about a complete listen by me that may very well have not happened if it had followed the very fulfilling Dvorak works. And in another programming coup, if whomever made the decision to pair the Szymanowski with Dvorak was seeking to give rise to stark contrast of classical music violin concertos their success is undoubted. If Dvorak is intuitively melodious and euphonious the Szymanowski is certainly not. You don’t, even after several listens, walk away humming phrases from this concerto. You enjoy it “in the moment” with out trying to “figure it out”. It is certainly not atonal, quite the contrary, although I don’t know if it has an established key. But it is definitely not literal. While many of his contemporaries were furthering the paths of the late 19th century master composers, the Szymanokowski concerto gives unsympathetic rebuff to traditional Western classical music tonality. At the same time there is more here than might first meet the eye (ear), especially after a second or third listen. Patience is the operative word. Indeed, after a while this concerto transitions from “kinda weird” to refreshingly inventive, unpredictable and passionate. There is an artistic balance of complexity and excitement. I would think that this composition requires, “pound for pound”, a more advanced technical skill level than does the otherwise more substantial Dvorak works. Make no mistake a fiddler of master skill level and uncommon stamina is a requisite to take on the Dvorak works. But the Szymanowski flush with a daredevil virtuosity and flair coupled with a nouveaux tonality makes it a special creatively artistic challenge. And for a fleeting moment Dvorak feels pedestrian. I am not ready to trade Szymanowski for the assured comfort and lyrical beauty of Dvorak but for an occasional sultry fling it hits the spot.
Throughout, I found the musicianship on both compositions to be top tier and the conducting to be all that I could expect or ask for. And all praises, especially, are due Steinbacher who shows unequivocally that she can master such contrasting works with equally complete self confident assurance and poise. On this disc, as she was live in San Francisco, she is absolutely superb.
Sound quality? I can vouch for the rock solid soundstage that is expansive from side to side, with lots of depth and height, all with very realistic proportions. I do like my soundstage slightly further back and with even more depth, and with perhaps smidge less detail with the violinist (did I just say that!) but that is just “audiophile fault-finding” and nothing more. The detail and imaging are very fine, as is musician placement that holds solid. Woodwind, brass, and percussion placement is just about spot on, as are the strings. The music is projected wonderfully with great sound harmoniously balanced by the composers as well as the Pentatone engineers.
But a most impressive sound quality virtue about this recording is that speaker position is *never* given up or betrayed by the music or engineering. I mean, at some point, even in the best of recordings, at a momentary lack of transparency, the music will expose the speaker, disrupting the illusion, if only for a few seconds for being what it is, just a speaker. But not with this recording. (I have made this almost exact observation about other Pentatone recordings). Some audiophiles find that suspension of disbelief is aided by closing their eyes. I am not among those; I listen wide-eyed. I find that even in the light of day this is a recording of exceptional transparency. At one point I thought I detected a flaw in the multi-channel presentation where during the Szymankowski I heard percussion coming from the extreme right side of the listening position. Well, guess what, the exact same affect happened at the exact same spot with the two channel program. (I listened almost exclusively in multi-channel but the several brief listens/comparisons I made with the two channel content showed it to be excellent, too). A representative demonstration of how well the microphone placement and engineering are comes during the cadenza of the Szymanokowski concerto. This is where at several times during staccato type phrasing the violinist sharply stops short against a backdrop of dead silence. The dim reverberation of the violin throughout the hall is graphically palpable.
Janowski/Steinbacher/Pentatone have combined for an excellent production for sound and performance and with special praise for an out-of the box paring of compositions.
Robert C. Lang
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