Boris Belkin, violin. Vladimir Ashkenazy/Radio Symphony Orchestra Berlin (1991)
The Violin Concerto shows the boy Strauss' considerable capacity for hard work, as well as an astonishing technical facility with the orchestra. Other than that, it's what people used to call a "virtuoso concerto," meaning "if you're looking for another Brahms, look somewhere else." Strauss himself kept it in his catalogue, but mentions of it in his later life irritated and embarrassed him. Still, violinists occasionally take it up. A good recording with soloist Carroll Glenn and conductor Kurt List appeared on the old budget Columbia Odyssey label (32 16 0312, released 1968). Unfortunately, the Vienna State Opera Orchestra played pretty sloppily, and the sound was all that the term "budget label" expresses. Rudolf Kempe and violinist Ulf Hoelscher on EMI (CMS764346, 1975) do as much as the work deserves. Hoelscher's tone roughens a bit when he goes for the big sound, but if anything, this antic gives the first movement (the weakest of the three) a bit of interest.
Ashkenazy and Belkin give you something more. Indeed, although they can't disguise the concerto's defects, they nevertheless convey why the work at least made some experienced musicians take notice. For once, Ashkenazy does not have to struggle with the subtleties of late Strauss ensemble. Here, Strauss writes a thoroughly conventional accompaniment and demands the usual soloist-orchestra balance: when the soloist plays, the orchestra essentially vamps in the background; when the soloist falls silent, the orchestra comes to the fore. Ashkenazy manages to tread near the line of over-inflating the piece, without stepping over. The orchestral tone is rich, abetted by superb work from the recording engineers who lay out a sound both full and clean. Belkin not only tosses off all the double-and triple-stops of the first movement, as well as the prestissimo runs of the delightful third-movement rondo, he sings beautifully and unpretentiously in the modest slow movement. Orchestra and soloist even manage to work the first movement with a bit of excitement. Although a far cry from even the first horn concerto, let alone Don Juan, this work may find its way into the libraries of not only partisans and scholars, but of those who are looking for something like Vieuxtemps.
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