American Concertos (2CD)

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Baiba Skride, Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra, Santtu-Matias Rouvali

“America, you are better off” – wrote Goethe in 1827, weary of German Romanticism and the 'fruitless wrangling' of sterile debates.

A century later, the New World experienced an unprecedented wave of migration consisting of leading figures, largely Jewish, from the cultural and intellectual spheres of Germany and Austriia, composers were able to immerse themselves in the new world of sound film in Hollywood. However, few were able to reap those rewards to the fullest. Among those few, who were able to make their way through pragmatism and perseverance, were Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Miklós Rózsa – both regularly nominated for Oscars. While making a living from this genre of 'music drama', each of them – whether or not they were recognized by the classical music business – sought to push the limits of the traditional formats and were remarkably successful in doing so.

'If you’re Heifetz, I’m Mozart!' Taking a phone call, Rózsa could scarcely believe that the legendary virtuoso was seriously interested in his Violin Concerto and was ready to give the work its premiere – but so he did in 1956. It was the same with the Violin Concerto by Korngold, Rózsa’s senior by ten years: the 1947 premiere of this twentiethcentury classic again showcased Heifetz as soloist. In the new generation of genuinely American musicians, one outstanding figure was Leonard Bernstein, an all-rounder whose early success led on to even greater heights: here too, one can hardly ignore his contribution to film music, even if it amounts to one single film. Bernstein rated his Violin Concerto of 1954, 'Serenade', inspired by Plato’s Symposium, as his best work ever, and this work too in its imaginatively slimmed-down scoring for string orchestra, harp and percussion is now acknowledged to be an important 20th-century concerto for violin. Isaac Stern performed the premiere of the work with the composer conducting. As an encore', this compilation includes the masterly Symphonic Dances from the immortal 'West Side Story', which has long risen above the 'fruitless wrangling' over 'light' and 'serious' music. The very different challenges posed by all three concertos are brilliantly overcome by Baiba Skride, whose unquestionable virtuosity nevertheless takes second place to the immediacy of her musical language and expression.

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Bernstein: Serenade (after Plato's 'Symposium')

Korngold: Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35

Rozsa: Violin Concerto, Op. 24

Bernstein: West Side Story: Symphonic Dances

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Brilliant performances in spectacular sound by a fabulous young artist



Of all the shining young violinists visiting Australia over the last couple of years, one who made a big impact on me (and on the Sydney Symphony Orchestra subscribers) was the young Latvian superstar Baiba Skride. Recording on the Orfeo label, her earlier discs (two of which I bought after her concert) are highly recommended, especially her stunningly recorded versions of the two Violin Concertos of Szymanowski: the best in what is now a crowded field.

This release, in Bernstein's centenary year, continues that high standard. Like Skride's other recordings it includes purely orchestral music, in this case the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story (played by the Tampere Philharmonic), so in effect it contains Bernstein's two most popular concert works. The performance here is more symphonic than terpsichorean, but is beautifully rendered under the dynamic, 33-year-old Finnish conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali. "Somewhere" and "I Have a Love" sound utterly ravishing, and while the Mambo may lack the urgency of performances under Bernstein and Dudamel, it sits in its Latin groove effectively.

In Bernstein's Serenade for Violin, String Orchestra, Harp and Percussion (1954), Skride is sensational. Her fast passagework in the central Presto and Allegro Molto Vivace sections is a knockout, and without imitating the jazz violin style of, say, Joe Venuti, she truly swings in the finale. Elsewhere her caressing of the typically long-breathed Bernstein melodies is formidable. She softens appropriately for the romantic, lyrical concertos of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and Miklós Rósza: both written for Heifetz as virtuoso vehicles, and both substantial works. Rósza's concerto is the lesser known but has received a few recordings lately; this one leaves them in the shade in terms of colour and characterisation.

Finally, the sound is absolutely spectacular. This is one of my discs of the year.