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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Violin Concerto Op.15 (1939) [34:52]
Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)
Violin Concerto (1939) [30:43]
Arabella Steinbacher (violin)
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin/Vladimir Jurowski
rec. 2017, Haus des Rundfunks, RBB, Berlin
Reviewed in surround
PENTATONE PTC5186625 SACD [65:47]

Britten's early Violin Concerto is rather neglected compared to many other 20th century violin concerti yet it is an absorbing and often moving work which rewards repeated listening. It does not present undue difficulties for the listener despite being full of virtuoso demands on the soloist. Arabella Steinbacher takes the dreamier sections more slowly than some of the competition, notably James Ehnes on Onyx (Bournemouth Symphony/Karabits) who is altogether tougher in his approach and for this reason, and because the orchestral details are recorded closer, makes a stronger impression.

Coupling the Britten with another rarely played concerto, that by Hindemith, is a good idea because neither work need be viewed as a makeweight alongside some much more famous piece. The Hindemith, written in the same year, 1939, is very characteristic of the composer. It contains the typical blocks of brass-heavy orchestral sound encountered in the opera Mathis der Maler, the E flat Symphony, Concert Music for Brass and so on. The violin does do some weaving through the textures but mostly it has either to compete with the orchestra or provide contrast, resulting in a craggy, dramatic and eventful composition. Here Steinbacher, whilst impressive in the quieter passages, chooses, perhaps unwisely, to tone down the drama by offering less resistance to the powerful orchestral part. Compared to the faster and more urgent Leonid Kavakos on Chandos (BBC Philharmonic/Tortelier), she seems rather too restrained. She is also slower than André Gertler on Supraphon (Czech Philharmonic/Ancerl) who has the advantage of offering Hartmann's glorious Concerto Funebre as an even rarer coupling than the Britten.

Jurowski's Berliners offer the most refined accompaniment in both works and are recorded with spaciousness and clarity, though at quite a low level. The whole disc sounds very well indeed but perhaps too relaxed and beautiful, particularly in the Hindemith. The booklet contains extensive and useful notes along with a curiously misty-looking publicity photo of Ms Steinbacher on page 3. A glance at her website shows this is intentional, though to my eyes it looks like a mistake.

Dave Billinge

Previous review: Michael Cookson



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