From Vengerov to Bach with a Belgian twist

The Compact Collection: Rob Cowan on the Week's Classical CDs
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Maxim Vengerov's newly released Dvorak/Elgar coupling reflects two distinct levels of musical engagement. In the Dvorak Violin Concerto, Vengerov's agility and brilliance are as much in evidence as anywhere else on disc, and yet something of the work's gaiety seems to elude him. Granted, the overall approach is fairly consistent, but the first movement lacks an element of fantasy while the finale is reluctant to dance.

Maxim Vengerov's newly released Dvorak/Elgar coupling reflects two distinct levels of musical engagement. In the Dvorak Violin Concerto, Vengerov's agility and brilliance are as much in evidence as anywhere else on disc, and yet something of the work's gaiety seems to elude him. Granted, the overall approach is fairly consistent, but the first movement lacks an element of fantasy while the finale is reluctant to dance.

Best is the transition from the first to the second movement, warm-textured playing vividly supported by Masur and his orchestra. Indeed, the accompaniment is often more involving than the solo playing, especially the way Masur draws out significant woodwind lines. But turn to Josef Suk (Supraphon) or Thomas Zehetmair (Teldec), and you sense the gypsy in Dvorak's soul, feel the fresh air wash cross your face. And that's what this Concerto is all about.

The Elgar is on a different level entirely. I can remember being bowled over by Vengerov's Barbican performance back in the 1990s, and hearing the piece again in this context (the recording was made in 1995) confirms a high level of intuitive musical understanding. The improvisatory second movement - one of Elgar's most elusive creations - inspires a degree of introspective musing that I've not sensed in some of Vengerov's more recent performances, while the same movement's coda is conveyed with a rare poetic sensibility.

A somewhat later Barbican recital found Anne-Sophie Mutter investing Respighi's late-Romantic B minor Sonata with more boldness than subtlety, though Mutter's new live DG recording of the piece tells a more intimate tale. Maybe the Barbican Hall dictated its own terms of projection, but there are no raised voices on the CD.

Webern's Four Pieces alternate concentrated lyricism with short-lived exuberance, whereas George Crumb's Four Nocturnes find Mutter in league with the knocking, twanging and shuddering of Lambert Orkis's orchestrated piano. Both players employ a wide repertory of colours and, if parallel priorities occasionally threaten to overwhelm Prokofiev's balmy D major Sonata (the bittersweet Andante is rather overcooked), you're sure to react, one way or the other.

Mutter's theatrical demonstrativeness faces its stylistic opposite in the tonally ripe but tactfully understated playing of the great Belgian violinist, Alfred Dubois. I have never encountered a more soulful or songful Bach than the one Dubois conjures for his little-known 1933 recordings of the Fourth, Fifth or Sixth violin and clavier Sonatas. It was therefore no surprise to learn that Dubois taught his younger (and better-known) compatriot Arthur Grumiaux. Both players shared - and here I quote from Tully Potter's CD booklet-note - "a perfect equilibrium between instinct and intelligence". It's that very balance that makes these wonderful old records so eminently re-playable. Most of today's violinist superstars could profitably learn from their example. Dubois' pianist partner is the potently musical Marcel Maas, who also offers us the whimsical C minor solo keyboard Toccata. And don't worry about the sound quality: shellac surface levels are low and both instruments reproduce clearly. If in doubt on any count, beam up track 5.

Dvorak, Elgar: Vengerov, Chachamov, NYPO, Masur (Teldec 4509-96300-2)

Prokofiev, Respighi, Crumb, Webern: Mutter, Orkis (Deutsche Grammophon 469 503-2)

Bach: Dubois, Maas (Biddulph BID 8017)

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