Korngold: Violin Concerto / Bernstein: Serenade - Ferschtman / Malát / Vasquez
Challenge Classics CC 72755
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.
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