You could be forgiven for not knowing that Schumann wrote any
concertante works for violin and orchestra. The reputations
of these three pieces have suffered a bizarre series of misfortunes,
but listening to this fine recording, it is hard to believe
that the music itself is at fault. Virtually every performer
who encountered these works in the first century of their existence
felt the need to correct or improve them. Rostropovich decided
that the Cello Concerto, of which the A minor Concerto is an
arrangement, required wholesale re-orchestration by Shostakovich.
Fritz Kreisler felt the need to 'rescue' the Fantasy in 1937
by essentially recomposing it. The D minor Concerto suffered
the worst fate of all. It was rehabilitated in the 1930s, but
by the Nazis, keen to find a substitute for the Mendelssohn
Concerto they had banned. So it is hardly surprising that the
work's post-War reputation has been poor.
Most of the revisions and edits to these scores over the years
have been justified by the belief that they are excessively
gloomy pieces in need of brightening up. Ulf Wallin and Frank
Beerman have had the good sense to go back to Schumann's original
scores to see if that is true. And no, it’s not true at
all. There are shades of Beethoven in one of his more earnest
moods in many passages, but like Beethoven, Schumann has the
lightness of touch, both in his voicing of harmonies and in
his orchestration, to keep the music afloat.
The full range of the violin is used throughout all of the works,
and Schumann takes more interest in the instrument’s lower
register than most. In the case of the A minor concerto, this
may be because the work was originally written for cello. The
version for violin is the composer's own, and was only discovered
among Joseph Joachim's papers in 1987. But the other works are
violin originals, suggesting that the composer took a real interest
in these lower notes. Those lower register passages impose unusual
technical challenges, the solo part must retain its flair without
the benefit of the projection that high notes can bring. Balance
is another issue, and good as Schumann's orchestration is, the
string writing in particular is often quite dense.
Fortunately these players are well aware of all the potential
problems, and the results are excellent. The SACD sound is good,
and this is one of those high definition recordings that manages
to use the clarity of sound to convey atmosphere as well as
detail. It does highlight a slight lack of precision in the
string ensemble, but nothing serious. The relationship between
soloist and orchestra is also presented with both clarity and
subtlety. Wallin is clearly distinguishable but also sounds
as if he is positioned very close to the orchestra. This is
a real benefit, especially in the D minor concerto, where Schumann
often blends the solo line subtly into the background textures.
Ulf Wallin is an expressive soloist, but a disciplined one too.
His vibrato is infinitely variable, but also tastefully restrained.
Neither he nor Beerman take many liberties with the tempos,
and when the music builds up to a climax, or one of those many
localised fortes at the top of a phrase that you find in Schumann,
there is often a very slight accelerando accompanied by an evenly
graded crescendo in the strings. And when the music requires,
Beerman has no qualms about overpowering the soloist for one
of these brief climaxes, all the better to highlight the violin's
return to dominance in the following phrase.
The time has certainly come to reassess these fine works after
a century and a half of wholly undeserved neglect. Perhaps the
challenges they pose are not the sort of challenges that 19th
century virtuosi relished. The soloist must work very closely
with the orchestra to achieve the required balance and interaction.
The lower register of the instrument must sing in the same way
as the upper register in other concertos. And the soloist must
put in hard work, yet retain a sense of modesty while weaving
in and out of the often equally important orchestral textures.
Ulf Wallin is a soloist who clearly relished these kinds of
challenges. Here's hoping he can inspire future generations
of violinists to take them up.