Bruch: Concerto No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra
with Beethoven: Two Romances
Zino Francescatti, violin / Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York / Dimitri Mitropoulos / Columbia Symphony Orchestra / Jean Morel
In the populous domain of Romantic violin concertos, there’s a lot to pick from. You can choose between Beethoven’s op. 61, Mendelssohn’s op. 64 or the Brahms. Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto is one of the most played, possibly just ahead of Jean Sibelius’s, and that’s just counting the most well-known. Each has been recorded a plethora of times, with the best violinists. The sound of the violin–majestic, towering, melancholic–makes it more than just a virtuosic vehicle designed for hotshot doyens (although that’s never lacking in the above-mentioned works either).
Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 is like some archetype of the form. It was completed, with considerable hemming and hawing by the composer, in 1866, and was intended for the great virtuoso Joseph Joachim. From the beginning it was a smash hit, though after a while Bruch couldn’t stand it and refused to listen to it anymore.
Despite his strong feelings, it’s become one of the performed works for violin. As part of the standards, it’s shot through with an empathic Romanticism. The violin soars above the orchestra like it’s rising out of the accompaniment in the Prelude and then softens to lullaby strains in the Adagio middle movement, with triplicated themes voiced equally between soloist and symphony. The energetic Finale is an extravaganza of virtuosity, with melodies strung from national airs and folks songs, and composed with unrelenting lyricism.
Zino Francescatti is the virtuoso in question on this Columbia mono LP, with Dimitri Mitropoulos and the P-SO of NY. The violinist was known for his championing of contemporary works, like those of Milhaud and Szymanowski. He’s most esteemed for his Mendelssohn recordings, however, along with this concerto.
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concert
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto
Isaac Stern, violin / Eugene Ormandy, conductor / Philadelphia Orchestra
Columbia MS 6062
At one time or another, Isaac Stern would probably have been the name you thought of when somebody mentioned a violin, while Eugene Ormandy tends to headline, along with Herbert von Karajan, every thrift-store classical record you come across nowadays. (On Discogs, his total discography comes out to 1,097, compared to Karajan’s whopping 1,566 recordings.) Stern and Ormandy played together a lot, as in practically every major concerto for violin and orchestra.
On this Columbia release, they perform two pillars of the violin repertoire: Tchaikovsky’s in D major (1878) and Mendelssohn’s in E minor (completed in 1844). Each is in some way a mirror-image of Romantic and Classical persuasions.
Funny enough, the Tchaikovsky was proclaimed too modern by its dedicatee. It didn’t really find an audience for several performances. Mendelssohn’s concerto, on the other hand, with its soaring orchestral parts and playful/soulful solos, was a smash hit when it debuted; one of the composer’s friends said it rivaled Hamlet for quotable moments.
Stern’s playing is never stern; instead, it’s intimate, especially in the Mendelssohn, where the pacing and vibrato are expansive. His violin is an inhaling and exhaling thing that makes every bowing glide sing. Ormandy’s PO responds with thoroughly voluptuous orchestral coloring.
The same qualities people love about Philip Glass are the same things others hate, the broken chords and the broody ambiences among them. Every film in which one of his scores is heard seems less like a soundtrack than a music video (The Truman Show, Watchmen, Notes on a Scandal are but a few). Put Glass’s work to any moving picture and it’ll instantly become that much more dramatic.
The Violin Concerto (1987), his first work using a traditional 3-movement structure, reimagines the concerto form. Instead of a soloist’s showcase, it’s basically a symphony with an extra violin teasing out the trickier passages. It opens with throbbing strings that give way to the violin’s arpeggios, in music that sculpts rather than demarcates time–“sequences and cadences” as Glass calls his densely packed style. An unhurried, lush second movement has the soloist cascading in and out of orchestral coruscations, while the third movement is an almost jolly dance, with the violin practically flipping out with minimalist fiddling.
All of which is to say that this is prime Philip Glass, and one of the great modern concertos for any instrument. On this 180g reissue (the album dropped in 1993) Gidon Kremer’s expansive, crisp playing is completely suited for the concerto in every way.