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Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op 61 (1806)
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Violin Concerto in D major (1946)
Vilde Frang (violin)
Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen/Pekka Kuusisto
rec. 2021, The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen
WARNER CLASSICS 9029667740 [65]

Vilde Frang has been around for a few years now, after a debut recording with the Sibelius and Prokofiev concertos (review) followed by Tchaikovsky and Nielsen (review) originally on the EMI (now Warner Classics) label. There have been other releases, for instance with Korngold and Britten (review) and Mozart (review) - in short, this recording joins an already distinguished discography, and will be snapped up by Frang's fans.

The recording quality here is very good indeed. The balance somehow captures every nuance of Frang's playing without having the violin unnaturally close in relation to the orchestra, which is also superbly detailed and with tremendous depth of sound. If I have any criticism of this release it is the booklet note, which is an interview or conversation between Pekka Kuusisto and Vilda Frang. This is nice enough to read and fills in some anecdote and personal experiences with and around these concertos from two musicians who are both violinists, but leave newcomers to the music to do their own online search to read up on historical context.

Frang has said that “the Beethoven concerto is a piece of overwhelming power... somehow more than music – the dimension of it feels almost cosmic. The force of this concerto takes me by surprise, over and over again.” This certainly comes through in the first movement, which is both a virtuoso tour de force and an epic symphonic statement. Frang plays Beethoven's cadenza as it appears on the arrangement with piano, and this works very well indeed, the soloist finally victorious over the suitably tamed orchestra as the dynamics wind down. Impeccable intonation and seriously delicious musicianship inform the atmospheric central Larghetto with some magical pianissimo playing before the finale kicks in with a rousing folksy energy. There are too many fine recordings of Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D major around for the making of definitive choices, but this is as gripping a performance as you could wish for. I had a listen to James Ehnes with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andrew Manze (review) by way of a reference, and found myself less wowed by the more homogenous sonics in this recording. Ehnes is fabulous of course, but the comparison reveals how the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen's more forward winds and generally less ‘romantic’ approach works here, the more lush Liverpool strings and less crisp timpani creating a very different effect.

You might think that the contrast between Beethoven and Stravinsky might be a bit too acute right next to each other, but the spiky energy and joie de vivre in this performance of that final Allegro seeds the up-front character of Stravinsky's opening bars perfectly. Stravinsky refers to 18th century models with his Violin Concerto in D major so there are connections to be found, but Frang and Kuusisto are unrestrained in the opening Toccata, emphasising virtuosity from soloist and orchestra alike in some jaw-dropping playing. One of my references in this work is Hilary Hahn with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields conducted by Sir Neville Marriner (review), and I was surprised to see this recording undercuts Frang/Kuusisto by nearly half a minute. Swift momentum but more restrained playing from the former against hectic ‘in your face’ accuracy played tricks on my memory, but I love the sense of fun in this new recording. There is a compelling bite to the pizzicati and an ‘all or nothing’ feel to this performance that outplays many a competitor, without losing musicality and affect in Stravinsky's more expressive passages. Aria II is an unashamed tear-jerker that truly hits home in this recording. Much as I love Hahn's playing Frang is more effective here, helped by a more substantial presence from the orchestra and a less ubiquitous, more rhetorical vibrato. As with the opening, the final Capriccio is a wild ride but again not the fastest on the planet, with Hahn shaving around 20 seconds off Frang's timing. This is of no importance, as you revel in the orchestra's stunning ensemble, the sonics capturing contrabassoon, tuba and double bass notes with ease.

Vilde Frang's playing on the ‘Rode’ Guarneri del Gesł from 1734 is superb in this recording, and everyone involved can have pride in a magnificent achievement.

Dominy Clements

Published: November 23, 2022

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