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CD Review

Mendelssohn / Brahms

Violin Concertos

Dmitry Sitkovetsky, violin
Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields/Neville Marriner
Hännsler Classics LCD 98.934 1996 DDD 68:50
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At the turn of the last century, that most romantic of writers on the violin, Paul Stoeving, lamented that he could never again hear Mendelssohn's violin concerto for the first time. Now almost a century later, he might lament even more bitterly: performances of the concerto have become so homogeneous and routine that he might wish each hearing to be his last. What once seemed a perpetually renewing stream from the fountain of musical youth has been baked by academic routine to a handful of dust. Or almost. That there is some moisture left in the well is attested by Dmitry Sitkovetsky's supremely romantic reading with Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. Throughout a relaxed first movement, ardent second, and sprightly third, Sitkovetsky and Marriner find turns of phrase over which they can linger longingly, in a manner not entirely in keeping with the slick, faceless, if not soulless, interpretive approach to the romantic repertoire canonized by modern practice. Rhythmic and dynamic nuances abound, yet their cumulative effect is never annoying or labored. Without lapsing into mannerism or exaggeration, the performers manage to breathe new life into what many might otherwise have never suspected was a corpse. There are so many jolts to the jaded listener that the fanfares in the short transitional movement to the finale, extraordinarily bracing though they are here, hardly rise above the general level of heightened sensibility Has there ever been a performance that combines so successfully a romantic personal with a classical objective point of view? Or individualistic virtuosity with utter subjection to the spirit of the work? If so, I haven't heard it.

Brahms' violin concerto, popular though it is, has never suffered the degradation of classroom dissection at the hands of inexpert biologists. Its thorny violinistic difficulties protect its soft center from violation by the unanointed. But its granitic massiveness, complexity, and density make it impossible to approach with the same intimacy as a violinist might bring to the Mendelssohn concerto. Marriner opens with a majestic muscularity that might seem more appropriate to the Concerto for Violin and Cello, but that sets the stage for a performance in every way equal to the concerto's unscalable grandeur.

Sitkovetsky is one of the few violinists of his generation who can be recognized almost instantly by his sound and style. While he creates an eminently logical connection between between the notes of a phrase, the sense of urgency from note to note is relaxed and the temperature and pressure are set below normal. Yet each work he approaches, whether from an analytical era like the twentieth century or an expressive one like the nineteenth, emerges with a new vitality.

Hänssler has provided a perfectly balanced recording that places the soloist in the proper perspective – a perspective in keeping with the collaborative harmony of the soloist, orchestra, and conductor themselves. But it's what the various players are doing rather than how well they are captured while doing it that makes this recording a great one. Not even the most jaded connoisseur of the violin literature will fail to be refreshed by this Mendelssohn or to be overwhelmed by this Brahms. Just when José Raoul Capablanca, the impersonal chess machine, began to despair that chess no longer had magical secrets to yield, he was defeated by the arch-romantic, Alexander Alekhine. In an age of violinistic automata, this fresh recording of two familiar masterworks should give similar hope of a new era. Urgently recommended.

Copyright © 1996, Robert Maxham