February 03, 2011


Mozart: Violin Concertos Nos. 1-5; Adagio for Violin and Orchestra, K. 261; Rondo for Violin and Orchestra, K. 269; Sinfonia concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra, K. 364; Rondo for Violin and Orchestra, K. 373; Concertone for Two Violins and Orchestra, K. 190. Julia Fischer, violin; Gordan Nikolić, viola and second solo violin; Netherlands Chamber Orchestra conducted by Yakov Kreizberg. PentaTone. $39.99 (3 SACDs + DVD)

Charlie Siem: Works by Wieniawski, Kreisler, Bazzini, Paganini, Waxman, Sarasate and Ponce. Charlie Siem, violin; Caroline Jaya-Ratnam, piano. Warner. $18.99.

     Poise, elegance, fine technique, a light touch and genuine enjoyment of the music are all characteristics of a very impressive new recording of most of Mozart’s music for solo violin and orchestra. The focus is on Julia Fischer, but in fact she does a fine job of holding back from any temptation to overwhelm the music through unseemly displays of inappropriate virtuosity: she plays the Mozart concertos with light, bright tone, certainly revels in the cadenzas and the opportunities for significant virtuoso display (especially in No. 5), but is very pleasantly restrained when it comes to most of the music. The result is that the concertos shine as collaborative efforts – and Fischer’s light touch is mirrored by Yakov Kreizberg and the Netherland Chamber Orchestra in accompaniments that are beautifully balanced, very cleanly played and filled with delicacy. The first two concertos are a trifle less successful than the last three – there is less to them, and Fischer sounds as if she is holding back a bit at times – but really, those are quibbles. Concerto No. 5, the “Turkish” and the most elaborate of the group, is best of all, sounding like a fully virtuosic work without seeming in the slightest bit Romantic or inappropriately “big.” But this concerto is no better than the wonderful Sinfonia Concertante, K. 364, in which Fischer’s violin and Gordan Nikolić’s viola intertwine so sinuously and with such attentiveness, each to the other, that the work gains even greater stature than it already has – it sounds absolutely right in its mixture of higher and lower solo-instrument sounds (violin and viola being separated, after all, by only a fifth in their tuning). The darker hues of the second movement are especially fine, with the viola flowering in its comfortable range and the violin, far from being held in check, showing just how expressive it can be without pyrotechnics. Also quite wonderful is the Concertone, K. 190, in which Fischer and Nikolić share the spotlight with Hans Meyer’s solo oboe and Herre Jan Stegenga’s solo cello. The Concertone sounds like carefully expanded chamber music, with all the soloists assuming prominence from time to time and with the total ensemble – including Kreizberg’s forces – performing with chamber-music delicacy and excellent interplay among the musicians. These are all familiar works, to a greater or lesser degree, but they have rarely sounded as transparent and as well balanced as they do here. The bonus Adagio and two rondos are also very well performed, with Fischer seeming to have the most fun with the ebullient Rondo in B-flat, K. 269. And there is another bonus in this exceptionally clear-sounding SACD set: a DVD called “Impressions of Various Recording Sessions” that includes slightly different readings of two movements of the Violin Concerto No. 2 and the first movement of the Sinfonia Concertante. Much of the time, DVDs of classical performances can be more distracting than enjoyable, since they do not duplicate the concert experience and really add to the music only one director’s ideas of what a listener-cum-viewer should pay attention to at any given time. But because this DVD accompanies nonvisual renditions of the music, it actually provides some insight into the way the full performances on the three SACDs were developed, how the works were rehearsed, and how the exceptionally fine ensemble between soloists and chamber orchestra came to be. All in all, this is quite a lovely set in every way – although it is a bit hard to understand why the first SACD includes Concertos Nos. 1, 2 and 5 rather than Nos. 1-3 (the timing of the discs would easily have allowed the concertos to be presented in order).

     It is not hard at all to understand why the works on the new CD featuring Charlie Siem are there: they are pure examples of virtuosic display, with little musical “meat” but plenty of sizzle – designed to show off any violinist’s flair with a bow. Siem certainly has that, although the unrelieved shallowness of his repertoire here leaves the CD with a (+++) rating. The disc is fun to listen to, at least once, but is not the sort of recording to which a listener is likely to return again and again: most of the works are quite familiar, and the CD as a whole sounds a bit like a series of unending encores. Franz Waxman’s 11-minute Carmen Fantasie is the longest work here and, in its own way, the most substantial, with the other reasonably extended pieces being Fritz Kreisler’s Viennese Rhapsodic Fantasietta (eight minutes) and Paganini’s variations on an aria from Paisiello’s La molinara (seven-and-a-half). Length, of course, is no indicator of profundity, but none of the works here allows Siem to show off more than a slick, fairly superficial technique (if a very skillfully deployed one). With cooperative accompaniment by Caroline Jaya-Ratnam – who never tries to pull the focus away from Siem – the CD also offers Kreisler’s arrangement of a Wieniawski Caprice; an interesting work called La Ronde des lutins (“Dance of the Goblins”) by Antonio Bazzini (1818-1897); two Paganini Caprices from Op. 1 (Nos. 1 and 5); Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen; and Estrellita by Manuel Ponce (1882-1948). The whole CD lasts less than 50 minutes, so it is scarcely a good value, especially for this repertoire. But Siem is certainly a highly accomplished violin virtuoso, and listening to his technique is a pleasure. The question of whether he can add thoughtfulness to technical ability will have to be answered by another recording.

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