Tuesday 25 March 2014

Review: Linus Roth - Britten and Weinberg Concertos

Challenge Classics CC72627, Violin Concertos by Benjamin Britten and Mieczysław Weinberg, Linus Roth (soloist), with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, conducted by Mihkel Kütson. Liner notes by Jens F. Laurson. 

Another admirable release by the violinist Linus Roth, building on the foundation laid by his previous 3-disc album with the pianist José Gallardo - see my review here. Roth's playing is faultless throughout, and the detractingly cold sound from the previous recording is absent here, with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin providing a lush cushion for Roth's soloistic antics. The release also has the selling point of being a SACD disc, should you have suitable equipment to enjoy it (which I don't; being a humble student, such tech is well out of my price range).

The disc features the excellent programming of combining Britten and Weinberg; while the close connections between Britten and Shostakovich have often been noted, the influence on Weinberg is an underexplored topic itself. Keep your eyes posted over the next few weeks, I have a blog-post/article in the works on this very topic. 

I must profess that the Britten violin concerto, Op. 15, is not a work that I am familiar with. Indeed, aside from his stage works and music for choir, I am admittedly scant on recordings of Britten. I am an avid fan of his Piano Concerto, however, and it is with reference to this work that I plunged headlong into this recording. Reading from Jens F. Laurson's excellent liner notes, I see that it is a relatively early work, one of the first written after Britten had arrived in the US, 1939. 
   The music owes a great deal to the violin concerto by Berg, with several passages sounding strikingly similar. Overall, however, it is a charming work of great drama, with both tender and assertive moments. The opening Moderato con moto movement gives a tender opening, ripe with material for development. The vivace middle movement is my personal favourite, with a sweeping orchestral line recurring throughout. The final passacaglia movement is strongly reminiscent of Shostakovich, and serves as perhaps the strongest link to Weinberg's own musical language. 
   The solo part for the Britten, while virtuosic, also demands a great sense of leading a drama. Roth fills the position of orator admirably, with little doubt as to his coolness in the role. Balance across the orchestra is excellent, giving a well-polished sound, particularly emphasised in the 'punching' gestures to be heard in the middle movement. The recording throughout is nuanced and warm, paying attention to the delicacies of Britten's orchestration, as well as the ferocity of his punctuating motifs throughout. If anything, this encourages me to seek out Britten's other concerto works. 

Next I turn to a work that I am much more familiar with, Weinberg's Violin Concerto, Op. 67. Written in 1959 and dedicated to Leonid Kogan, it is a world apart from his Violin Concertino, which readers may be familiar with, owing to the spate of recordings released recently. If the concertino can be said to represent a cheerful attitude in the face of adversity, then the 1959 work is a serious soloistic piece, rich with drama. It was premiered by Kogan in 1961, with Kondrashin conducting. A star in his own right, Kogan had a reputation for his strongly pro-Soviet leanings - though this may be a result of his international success, which he whole-heartedly attributed to the support of the Soviet government (similar to Weinberg's own enthusiasm). The concerto is marked by its near-relentless solo part, which barely rests for more than a moment, particularly in the first movement. In its four-movement structure, the work harks back to the classical Concerto, a parallel reinforced by Weinberg's inclusion of a Mozart quote in the Adagio third movement (a theme taken from the 'little' G minor Symphony). My previous experience of this work stems from Kondrashin and Kogan's formidable recording, made soon after the premiere performance. After then, recordings have been few and far between (but include a Naxos-label CD featuring Ilya Grubert on violin). With an interpretation as strong as Roth and Kütson's here, it is my hope that this CD will act as a case for other soloists to take up this work. 
   Shostakovich wrote to his friend Isaak Glikman in 1960, mentioning Weinberg's Violin Concerto:
I am very impressed by M.S. Vainberg’s Violin Concerto... It is a magnificent work. And I am weighing my words.
Of course, Shostakovich's own violin concertos are apt for comparison with Weinberg's own, particularly Shostakovich's First Violin Concerto, written 1947-48.
   The first movement opens with a strident gesture, quickly answered by the soloist. This immediately establishes the soloist-ensemble dialogue over the course of the work - that the Violin solo really does lead the music, in a brawling drama that is fully sustained over the course of the whole Concerto. Roth's handling of the virtuosic part is excellent throughout, never rising above a controlled restrain through the most fiendish passages, while also extremely tender in the Adagio movement.

Overall, I cannot fault this recording, particularly the lush sound engineering. I can only hope that this disc can serve as a persuasive case to encourage other violinists to take up both of these works - but especially the Weinberg.


The Challenge Records website - here (also featuring more information about the disc)
Amazon.co.uk - link.

Recommended comparative listening

Naxos, Miaskovsky and Vainberg, Violin Concertos, Russian Philharmonic Orchestra, Dmitri Yablovsky cond., Ilya Grubert (Violin). Link here.

Melodiya - Vainberg, Violin Concerto and Symphony No. 4, Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, Kiril Kondrashin cond., Leonid Kogan (Violin).
 - A really splendid recording, still setting the bar to which all others must live up to. The actual disc is rather tricky to find, though the recording has helpfully been uploaded onto youtube:

And for those eager for more media from Mr. Roth, see this excellent youtube video, discussing the album:

P.S. - keep posted for my upcoming feature on Britten and Weinberg. D.E.

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