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Korngold: Violin Concerto / Bernstein: Serenade - Ferschtman / Malát / Vasquez

Korngold: Violin Concerto / Bernstein: Serenade - Ferschtman / Malát / Vasquez

Challenge Classics  CC 72755

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Korngold: Violin Concerto*
Bernstein: Serenade after Plato's 'Symposium'**

Liza Ferschtman (violin)
Prague Symphony Orchestra*
Het Gelders Orkest**
Jirí Malát* & Christian Vasquez** (conductors)


Korngold’s Violin Concerto was completed in 1945. This is a beautiful, late Romantic work that harks back clearly to Korngold's earlier compositional style, when he was a younger man living in Vienna. But had he really turned his back on film music he was used to compose in America? Every movement of the Concerto is scattered with fragments from a range of his film scores. The Violin Concerto was a huge success at its premiere, not least due to the performance by Jascha Heifetz as soloist.

The 1950s, a period when Korngold's career and indeed his life were drawing to a close, were a most productive time for Leonard Bernstein. He was achieving major successes on Broadway with his musicals. The Serenade for violin, strings, harp and percussion had its premiere in Venice in 1954. There were two factors behind the composition. He had accepted a commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation. Also, he had long been promising a new piece for his close friend, the violinist Isaac Stern. Both of these commitments coincided in the Serenade, an extremely lyrical, five-movement work, akin to a violin concerto.

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Review by Adrian Quanjer - March 10, 2018

The Austrian born composer, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, is only modestly represented in the Hi-Res catalogue. Could it be that his oeuvre is considered by many neither fish nor meat? I think differently: it is both; and that’s the strength of a gifted composer who will eventually surface and be recognized as the one that so successfully (as I read somewhere) “brought the screen to the stage”.

A promising pupil of Zemlinski’s, Korngold soon became a highly respected and appreciated Viennese composer of a number of chamber works, all in a late romantic, melodious style, like his vocal works, most notably his opera ‘Die Tote Stadt’ (The Dead City), ranking very high indeed in popular demand. But after having received an American invitation to write music for the film ‘A midsummer Night’s Dream’, possibly in concurrence with growing German anti-Jewish sentiments, he completely changed his compositional mind. Leaving Europe for the States ahead of the Nazi takeover of Austria he started a new career to become a very successful film score producer.

But after the Second World War, he nostalgically reverted to his old trade: composing ‘serious’ classical music, of which his violin concerto is the best known example. Very well received in the United States (thanks, no doubt, to Jascha Heifetz) it did not immediately fare so well (just like his symphony in F sharp) in his European homeland, where Korngold for a long time remained a ‘cinema composer’, coming back with a style that had become obsolete to post war European taste.

However, times have changed and we now have 4 versions of the violin concerto in Super Audio at our disposal, of which this present reading by Liza Ferschtman is the latest entry. The concerto is an almost perfect amalgamation of ‘screen’ and ‘stage’ music. It has an immediate appeal to people who like to combine seeing and hearing. It has, indeed, fragments reminiscent of his film music, inspiring interpreter and listener alike to participate in a journey, which, in the composer’s words, is more Caruso than Paganini. The soloist should sing rather than try to impress technically. An enchanting violin floating above a solid, supportive orchestral framework seems to be the correct answer. And that’s exactly what you get with Ferschtman and the Prague Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Jiři Malát.

I compared with Steinbacher on Pentatone Bruch, Chausson, Korngold: Violin Concertos - Steinbacher and it may just be a matter of taste, but I find that Ferschtman’s reading is just that little bit more ‘Nobile’ in the first movement and throughout. Her tone is more filigree, softer edged and singing. In the final movement (which sounds more Paganini than Caruso) Steinbacher gives the impression of doing more ‘technics’ than Ferschtman, but I attribute that to her having more difficulty in dealing with the devilish notes than Ferschtman, allowing the latter to maintain a chanting and dancelike take.

Most will think that Korngold is the main item, and they are right, but I for one, believe that Bernstein’s Serenade after Plato’s “Symposium” is the one that merits our particular attention. Scored for strings, harp and percussion, a sustained solo violin turns the five movement serenade into a violin concerto. The common denominator is called ‘love’. Aspects of love as seen by Greek philosophers and set down in Plato’s Symposium. It is a captivating work, written in a lyrical fashion that should immediately appeal to a wide audience.

But beware, music about love is not necessarily ‘lovely’. Love has aspects of tenderness, but also obsession, jealousy, and possessiveness. Listening and comparing with Barber / Bernstein / Bloch: Violin Concertos - Gluzman / Neschling I played both versions several times discovering every time new elements. In fact, it is an amazing piece of music, underlining the ‘greatness’ of a composer like Lenny B. The liner notes give explanation to each of the movements, but I’m not so sure that’s what it’s meant to be. Bernstein is cagey about it, too, and his biographer believes that it rather deals with a self-analysis in which Bernstein “displays himself in turns as noble, childlike, exuberant, serene philosophical and finally elated”.

I tried to put down my own ‘love perception’ to each of the movements, but at every listening round I had to revise it. So I think it should best be left to the interpreters and listeners. And isn’t that also part of the greatness of Bernstein’s musical brain frame: creating a musical environment in which one can freely roam and discover according to taste and mood.

Comparing the two recordings, one may argue about the sound quality (I think that Challenge Classics is marginally better, but it would involve the quality of the reproduction system to hear the difference), or about the quality of the orchestra (I think they both do extremely well). But there is one aspect that may be decisive for a choice: Ferschtman’s violin is the loving partner under any circumstances, especially in part III, Eryxmachus’ (obsessional?) view of love: The Venezuelan conductor, Christian Vásquez, gives the leading role to the orchestra, to which Ferschtman’s soft edged violin responds as lovingly as possible, whereas Gluzman remains, as equal partner, in control with a more assertive tone.

Difficult to advise. Being largely on equal footing in musical and technical terms, Ferschman does not replace Gluzman. Differences are mostly a matter of taste. And in the final analysis it may well be that one’s choice also depends on the fact whether one already has any of the other works of the respective releases.

As for me, I’m very happy with this new combination Korngold/Bernstein and Liza’s reading of both.

Blangy-le-Château,
Normandy, France.

Copyright © 2018 Adrian Quanjer and HRAudio.net

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Comment by hiredfox - April 10, 2018 (1 of 14)

We have come to expect excellence from North Star Recordings and once again they deliver on their promise with a fabulously life-like recording which captivates from the opening bars of The Korngold Concerto. Whatever one thinks about these works or their interpretation there is no doubt that Ferschtman feels passionately about both and her playing comes clearly from the heart. She concludes that the central theme of both is deep love in a philosophical sense and responds with passion and wonderful articulation. The recording is a delight in all respects and is one not to dismiss lightly.

Adrain spends some time in his review comparing Ferschtman's "Symposium" with that of Gluzman but spends less time on the other excellent recordings of Korngold's Concerto in the SACD catalogue e.g. Mutter on DG or Steinbacher on Pentatone which are technically equally meritorious albeit with quite different insights. Rather than be overly concerned with the relative merits of these performances it is best to see this as an excellent stand alone recording bringing together two works that are not usually linked as a coupling and bathe in the passion of love exuded by Liza Ferschtman. You'll feel a heck of a lot better for the experience!

Comment by Adrian Quanjer - April 10, 2018 (2 of 14)

Glad to hear you love Ferstchman's Korngold as much as I did. By the way, I did not or could not compare with Mutter, because I do not have it. It's that simple.

Comment by William Hecht - April 10, 2018 (3 of 14)

Yes, a very fine disc indeed, wonderfully supplementing not supplanting Steinbacher's Korngold and Gluzman's Bernstein. I can't agree with John about Mutter's Korngold where neither the performance nor recording are in the same league (it left my shelves as soon as the Steinbacher arrived).

Comment by hiredfox - April 11, 2018 (4 of 14)

I do agree Bill that the DG recording is poor (by today's standards), it was an early attempt at SACD by DG and one suspects it might have been re-mastered from a pre-SACD Red Book recording.

Anne-Sophie is still going strong despite the passing years and although slightly rusty performed well at the BBC Proms at the RAH last summer. It was good to see her if only for the trip down memory lane!

Comment by William Hecht - April 11, 2018 (5 of 14)

It's funny, John, but just yesterday I found myself listening to her Beethoven sonata disc from the early years of sacd which hadn't been off the shelf in many a year. The recording is pretty poor by current standards, but the performances were much better and less mannered than I remembered. It was an enjoyable trip down memory lane.

Comment by Bruce Zeisel - April 15, 2018 (6 of 14)

I used to be a very big fan of Anne Sophie. Back when she was recording with Herbert von Karajan. The Beethoven LP was revelatory. However as time passed and I accumulated more recordings of her performances, I became aware of a serious shortcoming. Her vibrato has always been unvarying and rather fast - like Zino Francescatti. There are many violinists I would now rather her in concert and on recording. Liza Fertschman, Simone Lamsma, Arabella Steinbacher are three outstanding women artists I really like.

I have decided to take the plunge - after a little more investigation concerning file storage and managment - and begin using DSD Downloads for my purchases of DSD recordings. I will probably continue to buy discs where PCM technology continues to be all that is available. So this recording is on my new DSD downloads wish list! I hope HRAudio soon will provide space for such a wish list and will at least indicate when such recordings are available from whom.

Comment by hiredfox - April 16, 2018 (7 of 14)

Thanks for your thoughts on Anne Sophie. I must admit it is not one of her techniques that ever bothered me but now that you have mentioned it it is something I'll focus on when next listening to her discs.

Comment by Disbeliever - April 17, 2018 (8 of 14)

Very disappointing Korngold, too slow , too languid, sends me to sleep especially frst two movements much prefer Gil Shaham despite too close balance in parts

Comment by hiredfox - April 19, 2018 (9 of 14)

A life devoid of Love.

Comment by Disbeliever - April 25, 2018 (10 of 14)

A stupid comment by Hired Fox, in fact I found Ist movement so bad I hardly recognised it as Korngold, I wasted money buying this SACD.

Comment by Adrian Quanjer - April 25, 2018 (11 of 14)

Cheer up, disbeliever, you get two Korngolds for the price of one. The first to make you fall sleep, the other to give you a new violin concerto.

Comment by breydon_music - May 2, 2018 (12 of 14)

Well, the positive comments here finally made me take the plunge, even though I have previously been underwhelmed by some of this lady's recordings. I'm glad you guys persuaded me too, because this - to me - is jaw droppingly good. Perhaps I was just in a crusty mood when I tried her Beethoven, so if I see a carefully used one on Amazon perhaps I'll re-audition it!

Comment by hiredfox - May 2, 2018 (13 of 14)

Glad you like it so much. Seems to be universally popular so should sell well.

Comment by Disbeliever - May 5, 2018 (14 of 14)

Will sell mine for half price, but do not recommend you buy it, Buy the excellent Gil Shaham version a DG 4D recording sounds as good as a Stereo SACD.