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Antonín DVORÁK (1841-1904)
Violin Concerto in A minor, Op.53, B108 (1879) [32:16]
Max BRUCH (1838-1920)
Violin Concerto No.1 in G minor (1868) [24:01]
Julia Fischer (violin)
Tonhalle-Orchestra Zurich/David Zinman
rec. Tonhalle, Zurich, April 2012
DECCA 478 3544 [56:29]

The last decade or so has brought a welcome number of new recordings of Dvorák’s Violin Concerto. Once a problematic work, largely the preserve on disc of Czech and Russian players - Príhoda, Suk, Milstein, Oistrakh – it has also attracted violinists such as Haendel, Stern and, later, Perlman. The real focus of the last ten years has been the youthful soloists who have taken it into their recorded repertoires. The latest in this line is Julia Fischer, daughter of a Czechoslovakian mother, and now well established in her career. I’ve had the opportunity to review a number of her discs and have done so with a certain reserve.
My concern with the performance is largely to do with the orchestral collaboration, and that this has largely dictated the nature and direction of the music-making. Put simply, David Zinman is not, on this evidence, a natural-sounding Dvorákian. He, and here the recording certainly doesn’t help, encourages or allows some very bulky lower string saturation. A corollary is that the winds are a little too distinct in the first movement. Together these lead to a rugged sonic support, too heavy to respond to the composer’s malleable rhythmic devices. There are one or two awkward orchestral lurches as a consequence. Tuttis sound, alas, generic.
To this Fischer responds with as much athleticism and focused tone as she can, but even she occasionally lacks character and a degree of tonal variety. There could have been more expressive pathos in her exchanges with the winds in the first movement and though she tries sweetly to sing in the slow movement, the orchestra ploughs on, largely regardless. One of the composer’s loveliest passages in this work, the opening paragraph of the slow movement, goes for very little. I admired her thoughtful use of dynamics in the finale, even though she can be a touch too steady, and her passagework could be more sparkling. Her folkloric imperatives are however engaged – this is a work she knows well – but that spirit is just not shared by Zinman, who hobbles along, pulling her down time after time.
The companion is the Bruch Concerto. Well, one understands the alliances, given that they were both sent to Joseph Joachim for analysis and revision, but they are very different beasts, and the world surely isn’t clamouring for another performance of the G minor. I know it’s an obvious coupling but I’d have added Dvorák’s Romance and then Suk’s Fantasie or what about one of Foerster’s Concertos, notwithstanding the existing Supraphon recording? Still, one can only review what’s in front of one. The Bruch is a considerably better performance, albeit Zinman seems insistent on hammering out a much repeated orchestral figure in a manner that draws attention to it in an unbalanced way. I still find the orchestral palette too stentorian. I also find some of the pianissimi too slick and manufactured. Even so, it’s a more comfortably idiomatic affair all-round.
Jonathan Woolf