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CD Review

Contrasts

Concertos for Violin and Orchestra

Liana Isakadze, violin
USSR State Academic Symphony Orchestra/Alexander Lazarev
Melodiya MELCD1002221 63:44
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This album's title, Contrasts, is quite appropriate, for one could hardly find two violin concertos from the 20th century more different than the Sibelius and Schoenberg works here. The Sibelius is lyrical and dark, but with those irresistible Nordic flavors we so often associate with this Finnish composer. The Schoenberg is also dark but with a jagged lyricism and proudly atonal veneer that still strike many as difficult to grasp. First-time listeners typically hear the music as if through a seeming structural fog and intractable orchestration, causing them to puzzle over what exactly is happening in the piece. But the Schoenberg Concerto is more rewarding than it might seem on first or second or even third hearing. It's especially a worthwhile composition when it is presented in a performance this convincing.

Liana Isakadze (b. 1968) was a child prodigy whose teachers included David Oistrakh. She won several important competitions and developed a major career in the Soviet Union and abroad. Based in France, Isakadze is still active today. She was a courageous performer in her youth in that she was the only Soviet violinist of her time to regularly perform the Schoenberg Violin Concerto. Her performance of it here, recorded for Melodiya in 1981, is as full-blooded a rendering of the work as you're likely to encounter. Isakadze does not sand the rough edges or tone down the plentiful harshness; rather, she revels in Schoenberg's dissonant and often abrasive music. So does conductor Alexander Lazarev.

Isakadze's tone is bold and assertive, and she points up Schoenberg's often acerbic lyricism without attempting to attenuate its grit. She catches the darkness of the first movement's fateful main theme, but also conveys the quirky playfulness that soon follows. Her cadenza is muscular and filled with tension as it builds subtly and profoundly to the ominous return of the main theme. Isakadze phrases the second movement's gentle main theme with a delectable sweetness in her singing tones. Her finale is vigorous and colorful and again features a brilliant rendition of the cadenza. I've always felt this was the best movement of the concerto, and Isakadze's account reinforces that view as she and the orchestra deliver a riveting performance on all counts. Schoenberg never sounded so good.

Pierre Amoyal has a good version of the Schoenberg Concerto on Erato, and if I can trust my memory, a 1950s Vox LP that featured the work with violinist Wolfgang Marschner (coupled with the Piano Concerto performed by Alfred Brendel) was also convincing, assuming you can find it in a reissue. That said, this version by Isakadze becomes my first choice in this challenging but rewarding work.

Isakadze also turns in a fine performance of the Sibelius Concerto, recorded in 1980. Here of course, there's much more competition on record, but Isakadze is very compelling on her own terms. What are those terms? Her tone tends toward the muscular side once more, and she's more likely to eschew finesse in favor of a robust approach. Still, she infuses lyrical passages in the first two movements with both passion and warmth, and her finale is exciting and colorful, with brilliant virtuosic playing throughout. Excellent versions by Heifetz, Kennedy, Belkin and many others crowd the catalog, but this effort by Isakadze offers a somewhat different approach to this warhorse that is well worth exploring. The sound reproduction is close and powerful, but perhaps a little dry. Highly recommended.

Copyright © 2014, Robert Cummings

Trumpet