March 08, 2007


Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto, op. 35; Sérénade mélancolique, op. 26; Valse-Scherzo, op. 34; Souvenir d’un lieu cher, op. 42. Julia Fischer, violin; Yakov Kreizburg, piano (Souvenir) and conducting the Russian National Orchestra. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

Nielsen: Maskarade: Overture and Cockerel’s Dance; Sir Oluf He Rides: Prelude; Snefrid, Suite for Orchestra; Saul and David: Prelude to Act II; Rhapsodic Overture: A Fantasy Journey to the Faeroe Islands; Willemoes: Prelude to Act III; Pan and Syrinx, Pastoral Scene for Orchestra; Cupid and the Poet: Overture; Helios Overture. Thomas Dausgaard conducting the Danish National Symphony Orchestra/DR. Dacapo. $16.99 (SACD).

      No matter how good your audio equipment may be, it makes little sense to buy recordings simply because they are sonic spectaculars. But when top-notch playing is recorded with the superb sound consistently produced on Super Audio CDs (SACDs), you get the best of both worlds: performances that would be a pleasure in any form, and recordings that bring out greater detail of those performances than you would hear in standard CD format. These Tchaikovsky and Nielsen SACDs are among the best recent releases of their type.

     Julia Fischer seems to have a nearly endless supply of élan on her new Tchaikovsky disk. She is a violinist of rare style, producing even and balanced tone throughout the range of her 1750 Guadagnini instrument – with fullness even at the very top of the E string. A good thing, too, since Tchaikovsky, no expert in writing for the violin, made tremendous demands on the soloist in all the pieces recorded here.

      Fischer is deft and delicate from the start of the Violin Concerto, letting the rhythms flow naturally and producing a sound more of elegance than of raw power. She gives in a bit too often to the temptation of rubato during the lengthy first movement, but she plays always with great style and complete technical mastery. Yakov Kreizburg, directing the wonderfully smooth Russian National Orchestra, proves an excellent foil for Fischer and is more than a mere accompanist – for example, the orchestral section a third of the way through the first movement is given its full breadth rather than being minimized for the sake of the soloist’s playing beforehand and afterwards. The very fast ending of this movement shows Fischer and Kreizburg in equal control.

      The second movement is played with genuine warmth and comes across as more than just an interlude. The finale is speedy – with the most impressive elements of Fischer’s playing being the soft sections, which are very soft indeed. But they are perfectly audible over the orchestra, in a way that sounds highly natural to the ear but is actually hyper-realistic – the result of truly outstanding sound on this SACD (which also sounds top-notch when played on standard CD equipment). The precision and balance heard here are simply unattainable in a real-world concert hall.

      The other works on this disk are of less importance, but all get loving treatment. Sérénade mélancolique is filled with beauty, but it has more of an assumed melancholy than an experiential one: Fischer was just 23 when she made these recordings last year, and may need a little more maturity to do full justice to this piece. The rarely played Valse-Scherzo is all flash and panache, with some particularly felicitous orchestral pizzicati accompanying Fischer’s very dashing rendition. Souvenir d’un lieu cher is a little odd in this group, being for violin and piano rather than violin and orchestra, but Kreizburg proves himself a more-than-capable partner at the keyboard, and the piece comes across as a musical sharing of equals. The first movement, Méditation, longer than the other two put together, derives from Tchaikovsky’s original slow movement for the Violin Concerto. He recast it after discarding it, and it is certainly touching and heartfelt here, with genuine emotion in the playing. The following Scherzo is a brilliant display of fireworks, made more remarkable by Fischer’s absolute evenness of tone. The concluding Mélodie is indeed melodious, but does not function as a traditional finale – it is instead sweetly meandering, with Fischer and Kreizburg taking it gently to the end.

      The mixture of better-known and less-known pieces on the SACD of Carl Nielsen’s orchestral music proves to be a showcase both for the composer and for the wonderful playing of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra/DR under its chief conductor, Thomas Dausgaard. Nielsen’s music is all about detail, and the level of sonic detailing in this recording is simply amazing: the sound truly enhances the music. The two bright, bouncy and well-known excerpts from Maskarade burst forth with ringing clarity. The much less-known Prelude to a play called Sir Oluf He Rides – which dates to the same time as Maskarade (1906) – proves to be sonically quite different from the popular opera, with excellent contrast between pizzicato and legato playing, clarity of horns and percussion, and a very quiet ending. Indeed, the quiet passages on this SACD are every bit as impressive as the fortissimo ones, and sometimes more so. The five-movement Snefrid suite (1893-1899) is a case in point: the quiet, sensual sections are especially lovely, the delicate passages particularly clear.

      In the prelude to Act II of Saul and David (1899-1901), there is clarity of a different sort, as the brass fanfares and timpani come through with stunning realism. Nielsen’s late Rhapsodic Overture (1927) benefits sonically on both the loud and soft sides: extremely quiet drumbeats at the opening are perfectly clear, as the music hovers at the edge of audibility for more than two minutes – until outbursts one-third of the way through this 10-minute piece usher in a huge dynamic range that culminates in snare drum and bass drum passages that are just as impressive on standard CD equipment as they are when heard in full SACD splendor.

      The prelude to Act III of the little-known play Willemoes (1907-1908) showcases a natural flow of strings accented by piquant wind touches. The wonderful Pan and Syrinx (1917-1918) provides tremendous contrasts between lower strings and winds, on the one hand, and tambourine, xylophone and other percussion on the other hand; and there is great delicacy in the unusual scoring of the final, dissonant string segment. Cupid and the Poet (1930) was Nielsen’s last orchestral work – he died in 1931 – and it neatly encapsulates much that has gone before on this SACD and elsewhere in the composer’s music, from string sections reminiscent of Maskarade to string and percussion passages that recall the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. The final work here, the majestic and impressive Helios Overture, moves from the deepest recesses of the orchestra to a blaze of brilliance on horns and trumpets, zips into a fugal section for strings that is super-clear in this rendition, and ends so quietly that it would likely be inaudible in the concert hall. But SACD engineering, added to the wonderfully idiomatic performances, turn this work, and this entire recording, into a triumph from start to finish.

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