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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 15 (1938/39, rev. 1954, 1965) [34.52]
Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)
Violin Concerto (1939) [30.43]
Arabella Steinbacher (violin);
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin/Vladimir Jurowski
rec. April 2017 Haus des Rundfunks, RBB, Berlin
PENTATONE PTC5186625 SACD [65.47]

Arabella Steinbacher is to be commended for releasing an album consisting of two highly virtuosic yet accessible mid-twentieth century violin concertos which don’t form part of the established Romantic concerto repertoire that one hears repeatedly, and which fill the record catalogue. The two concertos are closely contemporaneous, being completed in 1939 with both composers, in the face of impending war, having recently forsaken their home countries to live abroad. Steinbacher has certainly not embarked on an easy project as each concerto is renowned for the physical and artistic demands made on the soloist.

One of the finest soloists of her generation, I recall reporting from a Dresdner Musikfestspiele concert in May 2016 at Frauenkirche with Steinbacher as soloist supported by WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln under Marek Janowski. Steinbacher played Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending and the Chausson Poème to a terrific audience reception (review). I interviewed her on the morning of the concert. In the interview Steinbacher explains that she plays the Britten concerto quite often.

My admiration for Britten’s Violin Concerto, a twentieth-century masterwork of the genre, began over thirty years ago when I attended an awe-inspiring concert at Free Trade Hall, Manchester with the great Ida Haendel performing the work with the BBC Philharmonic. Britten left England in April 1939 completing the score that year largely in Canada during his trip with Peter Pears to North America. It was Sir John Barbirolli who conducted the première at Carnegie Hall, New York in 1940 with the Spanish soloist Antonio Brosa and the New York Philharmonic. Dissatisfied with some technical aspects of the score and some editing by Brosa, Britten undertook revisions in 1954 and in 1965. When soloist Janine Jansen performed the concerto in 2009 at Berlin with the Berliner Philharmoniker under Daniel Harding I was surprised to discover that the world’s most famous orchestra hadn’t played it for some fifty years. The centenary of Britten’s birth in 2013 created interest in the concerto, which is now experiencing a renaissance as borne out by a bunch of recent recordings.

This is playing of high intensity from Steinbacher as she gradually intensifies the powerfully brooding melodies of the opening movement, which creates an unsettlingly sinister feel. The dark undercurrent is marked, together with that sense of emotional struggle often found in Britten’s music. Described by music writer Ian Christians as a “brilliant and macabre dance” the threatening central movement, strong and dynamic, develops into a tension-filled stormy outburst. Highly unsettling in character, the writing certainly feels like a harbinger of looming danger, with the Berlin players providing convincing drama. In the extended Cadenza Steinbacher convincingly conveys an icy chill that penetrates down to the bone. Written, it seems, to mark the deaths of the British volunteers in the Spanish Civil War, Britten fills the Finale, a passacaglia with a set of nine variations, with writing of dark passion similar to an anguished cry of both physical and emotional pain. A totally captivating soloist, Steinbacher’s absorbing playing generates real passion.

Remaining peerless among the recommendable recordings is the deeply satisfying version Ida Haendel made with Paavo Berglund. It was in 1977 at Southampton Guild Hall that Haendel produced her evergreen account with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra playing with great emotional intensity and technical proficiency. Of the more recent recordings from the last decade Steinbacher’s account stands confidently alongside the finest. Worthy of admiration is Janine Jansen who brings an engaging intensity to the score, recorded with the LSO under Paavo Järvi in 2009 at the Abbey Road Studios, London on Decca. Another outstanding recording is the highly accomplished 2015 Frankfurt account played by Vilde Frang and Frankfurt Radio Symphony under James Gaffigan on Warner Classics.

Hindemith’s underrated Violin Concerto deserves a better fate than lying on the fringes of the concerto repertoire with concert programmers taking the easier decision to engage soloists to perform far more familiar concertos. Hindemith departed Germany in August 1938 and the three-movement score was composed the following year whilst Hindemith was in exile in Switzerland from Nazi Germany. It was soloist Ferdinand Helmann who introduced the demanding score in 1940 at Amsterdam with the Concertgebouw under Willem Mengelberg.

It was only in January 2017 that Steinbacher played the Hindemith concerto for the first time, in concert with Vladimir Jurowski and Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin. In the opening movement (Mäßig bewegte Halbe) I love the sharp contrast between the absolute tender beauty of Steinbacher’s violin part and the often loud and joyous brass-laden writing. Marked Langsam, the moody central movement is the heart of this engrossing score. Here Steinbacher’s generous lyrical line is infused with a strong sense of introspection, possibly reflecting the composer’s yearning and concern for his homeland. At 6.20-7.12 the brooding spell is interrupted by a highly dramatic, loud brassy passage with writing that feels cinematic. Exceptional too is Hindemith’s jaunty and outgoing Finale: Lebhaft with its confident bravura ending.

A recommendable recording for its heightened engagement and penetration is David Oistrakh’s classic 1962 account with the LSO under the composer’s baton on Decca (review). Steinbacher may not provide the power of Oistrakh’s account but she delivers a stunning performance of considerable emotional depth. Although not quite in the same class as Oistrakh and Steinbacher another recording worthy of praise is the live 2012 Hamburg account played by Midori with the NDR Symphony Orchestra under Christoph Eschenbach on Ondine (review).

I played this hybrid SACD on my standard unit. Recorded under studio conditions at Haus des Rundfunks, RBB, Berlin the sound team excel, with the impressive sound being clear with lots of fine detail and well balanced too. The accompanying booklet includes a note from Steinbacher and an interesting and informative essay on each concerto. With playing coming from the heart, Steinbacher communicates playing of technical proficiency with an abundance of poetry. These glowing and perceptive performances from Steinbacher maintain a steady hold on the listener. Worthy of acclaim in short this is a special release.

Michael Cookson



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