November 12, 2009


Dvořák: Violin Concerto; Romance in F minor; Szymanowski: Violin Concerto No. 1. Arabella Steinbacher, violin; Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin conducted by Marek Janowski. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

Chants d’Est/Songs from Slavic Lands: Music of Sergei Rachmaninoff, Ernö Dohnányi, Alexander Tcherepnin, Franck Krawczyk, Sergei Prokofiev, Bohuslav Martinů and Gustav Mahler, plus two Jewish traditional songs. Sonia Wieder-Atherton, cello; Sinfonia Varsovia conducted by Christophe Mangou. Naïve. $16.99.

     Programs of variety, sensitivity and subtlety distinguish these two well-played disks, although Arabella Steinbacher’s SACD has more depth and is more nuanced than Sonia Wieder-Atherton’s CD. Steinbacher offers a contrast between the high Romantic art of Dvořák and one of the first violin concertos to move past it: Karol Szymanowski’s one-movement Violin Concerto No. 1 (1916), which manages to be highly expressive while going beyond traditional Romantic esthetics and traditional tonality. The Szymanowski, which is played first on this SACD, sounds straightforward and even tame from the vantage point of almost a century later, but Steinbacher makes no attempt to hide its modernity (1916-style) as she attacks the work with both care and gusto, especially notably in the cadenza (written by Paweł Kochański, who helped Szymanowski understand the intricacies of the violin and to whom the composer dedicated the concerto – although Kochański was not the first to play it). Just how far Szymanowski had moved beyond the Romantic ideal is clear in the contrast between his concerto and Dvořák’s Romance in F minor, which the composer reworked for violin and orchestra from a movement of one of his string quartets. Steinbacher nicely controls what can be a level of swooning sentimentalism here, although she plays the work with care and emotion – and is well supported by Marek Janowski and the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, whose sound here is lusher than in the Szymanowski. And then comes Dvořák’s only Violin Concerto, written for Joseph Joachim – who, however, did not care for it and never played it in public. Today it is easy to dismiss Joachim’s objections to the structural liberties that Dvořák took in the work, but in the Romantic era, the composer’s ideas – notably the abrupt shortening of several parts of the first movement and its attacca progression into the second – would have seemed to deny the work (and the soloist) a full measure of expansiveness. Steinbacher plays here with a full, even elegant sound that maximizes the concerto’s effectiveness while showing how firmly it sits in the great Romantic expressive tradition.

     Expressiveness is a major focus of Sonia Wieder-Atherton’s CD of folk, religious and traditional music drawn mostly from the parts and peoples of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. Wieder-Atherton’s program looks wonderful on paper, and her cello playing is sumptuous and lovely, but somehow the juxtaposition of these various short pieces does not quite work – with the result that this CD gets a (+++) rating. There is a sense that Wieder-Atherton is trying too hard to make a point that never quite gets made. An excerpt from Rachmaninoff’s Vespers is followed by parts of Dohnányi’s Ruralia Hungarica, after which there is a Jewish traditional “Song in Remembrance of Schubert” and then the Tatar Dance from Tcherepnin’s Songs and Dances. The underlying musical traditions of these works bear some resemblance to each other, but the pieces coexist rather uneasily here, in a disconnected fashion. And after the Tcherepnin, Wieder-Atherton plays Jeux d’enfants by Franck Krawczyk (born 1969), which is avowedly based on Janácek’s Moravian Folksongs but draws on a much-changed musical language. Then we return to Russia for a short piece from Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky, followed by Martinů’s Variations on a Slovak Folk Song and an instrumental version of Mahler’s Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen from his Rückert songs – and then, at the end, there is another Jewish traditional piece, this time a dance. The emotions skitter helter-skelter throughout this CD, which ultimately is united mostly by Wieder-Atherton’s style and her sensibility. The individual pieces on the disc are a pleasure to hear, and Wieder-Atherton plays them well (and gets good backup from Sinfonia Varsovia under Christophe Mangou, which in this case means the orchestra stays mostly in the background so the limelight remains on the cellist). But as a totality, the CD does not quite hang together, for all the beauty of the playing.

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