Violin Concerto No. 1 in g
Arabella Steinbacher (vn); Lawrence Foster, cond; Gulbenkian O
PENTATONE 5186503 (SACD: 70:23)
There was something I really liked about Arabella Steinbacher’s playing on the first of her recordings to come my way—the Shostakovich concertos on Orfeo followed by the Bartók concertos on PentaTone. But next came her Brahms Concerto with Fabio Luisi and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, also on PentaTone, and doubts began to creep in. There seemed to be an excess of caution, an underplaying for the sake of safety, which resulted in a performance that never took wing. And now, I find myself starting off my review of Steinbacher’s latest album with almost the same equivocation I tendered in my 36:4 review of the violinist’s Prokofiev concertos, wherein I said, “It’s difficult to write a critical review of an artist towards whom you are favorably disposed and whose latest recording you really want to like.”
The plain truth is that there are things I really
like about Steinbacher’s playing. Her tone is not a particularly big one but it’s very refined, and she’s capable of producing some of the most exquisitely soft, delicate, and melting
s of any violinist I’ve heard. Virtuosic passages pose no difficulties for her, but she wears her virtuosity modestly. While it’s hard to imagine any technical challenge that would defeat her—she has, after all, performed a number of the violin repertoire’s most demanding works—Steinbacher doesn’t strike me as the type of player who would strut her stuff in Paganini’s Caprices. Her recordings, thus far, have defined her primarily as an artist not given to superficial or flamboyant displays of technical prowess.
And that, perhaps, in part, at least, is what I found a bit disappointing in her previous Prokofiev album, and it’s what gives me cause for concern about this, her latest venture. Both the Bruch, and even more so the Korngold, concertos are virtuoso showpieces, and neither benefits from underplaying.
Yet, if there’s an element of panache lacking here, especially in the Bruch, it’s not necessarily Steinbacher who’s at fault. The recording and balance engineers have placed her against the orchestra in what is actually a realistic concert hall perspective, which is to their credit; I’m not criticizing them for that. But the result is that the soloist is not placed out front and up close, as we’ve become accustomed to from what has been pretty much standard operating procedure since time immemorial. In the case of a player who projects with a bigger, more robust tone and greater authority, the effect might not be so disadvantageous, but in Steinbacher’s case—recall her exquisitely soft, delicate, and melting
s noted above—there are too many instances where she simply vanishes from the stage. One example comes in the first movement of the Bruch at the passage marked
Stringendo poco a poco
, where the violin begins an ascending chromatic scale marked
. As I strained to hear it, I found myself asking out loud, “Arabella, where are you?”
Exacerbating the balance problem is another matter, and that is the occasional lack of synchronicity between soloist and orchestra at important points of articulation. Lawrence Foster and the Gulbenkian Orchestra have proven themselves attentive concerto partners, quite recently in fact, with the very talented young pianist, Sa Chen, in a recording of piano concertos by Grieg and Rachmaninoff. But here, it’s as if every now and then, Steinbacher is given to a spontaneous rhythmic adjustment for which rehearsals didn’t prepare Foster or the orchestra, resulting in the violin ending up slightly ahead or behind an orchestral cadence.
On the plus side—and it’s a big plus—Steinbacher’s Korngold concerto is a thing of such rarefied, lofty beauty that it renders the above reservations immaterial. Besides, there are so many competing versions of the Bruch that you’re bound to have a favorite or two in your collection you can turn to as an alternative. But the Korngold, while not neglected, has not been recorded nearly as often. Frankly, I wasn’t prepared for a performance of the piece that would rival, let alone surpass, the relatively recent account by James Ehnes with Bramwell Tovey and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra on CBC, but Steinbacher’s performance is spellbinding, and Foster, with a helping hand from PentaTone’s sumptuous SACD recording, directs the orchestra in a reading that’s both vibrant and voluptuous.
When it comes to Chausson’s
, I’m beginning to believe that you really do have to be French, or at least Belgian, to get it just right. Of all the performances I’ve heard, none approaches the one by Arthur Grumiaux and the Lamoureux Orchestra under Max Rosenthal for that thinly veiled atmosphere of expectant eroticism. Interestingly, another performance that manages to capture the mood of the piece perfectly also happens to have been led by Rosenthal, only this time conducting the Monte Carlo Philharmonic and violinist Augustin Dumay.
The current version by Steinbacher and Foster is one I really don’t like very much, only this time I blame Foster rather than his soloist. In my opinion, he interprets some of Chausson’s rhythms in a way that makes the music sound jaunty and almost dance-like and frivolous, which most would agree, I think, runs contrary to the character of the piece.
At the end of deliberations, what we have is a non-unanimous verdict. There are more fully realized and satisfying versions of the Bruch concerto to be had, and definitely more fluent and idiomatic versions of Chausson’s
, but Steinbacher’s Korngold stands tall and commanding among the pack. For the Korngold alone, I would therefore accord this release a strong recommendation.