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Dvorak: Violin Concerto, Gershwin: An American in Paris - Ferschtman, Venzago

Dvorak: Violin Concerto, Gershwin: An American in Paris - Ferschtman, Venzago

Challenge Classics  CC 72530

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Dvorak: Violin Concerto in A minor Op. 53, Gershwin: An American in Paris

Liza Ferschtman
Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra
Mario Venzago


The premiere of the Violin Concerto composed by Dvořák would be in Prague on 14 October 1883, played by the Czech violinist František Ondříček. A month Later he played it in Vienna with the Wiener Philharmoniker, conducted by Hans Richter. It was a special and memorable concert for Dvořák, all the more so since the Third Symphony of Brahms was on the programme as well, and Brahms had been a driving force behind the Violin Concerto.

We do not know why Joachim never performed the Violin Concerto. it was the idea that Joseph Joachim would have played the actual Premiere but this in the end did not happen.It was claimed that, having been trained in the German musical tradition, he thought the concerto's form was too free. Although he never said so directly to Dvořák, a number of his proposed changes point in that direction. Strictly speaking he was right, but it was precisely the unconventional forms used by the composer that make the work so intriguing.(from the liner notes)

Liza Ferschtman gives a beautiful rendition of this intriguing concerto together with Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra and Mario Venzago.

On this cd we can also hear "An American in Paris", a symphonic poem, or perhaps it can better be termed a free rhapsody for an expanded orchestra by Gershwin . Although Gershwin had not meant it as programme music and certainly not as an autobiographic work, it clearly shows features of both. And it was even Gershwin himself who described the piece as follows: “My purpose here is to portray the impression of an American visitor in Paris as he strolls about the city and listens to various street noises and absorbs the French atmosphere." As the story continues, the man becomes homesick for the familiar sounds at home in America. But pleasure gains the upper hand and he flings himself with conviction into the hustle and bustle of Paris.

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Review by John Miller - November 3, 2011

Having greatly enjoyed Liza Ferschtman's vernal Beethoven Violin Concerto (Beethoven: Violin Concerto - Ferschtman / de Vriend), I was looking forward to her reading of the sometimes elusive Dvorak concerto. She moves to a different Dutch orchestra, the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra Amsterdam (with 130 players the largest in the Netherlands) and has a different conductor, Mario Venzago. Venzago was born in Zurich. His conducting career began as music director of the Heidelberg opera house and Philharmonic Orchestra, then progressed through a chief conductorship of the German Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, the Graz Opera, the Basque National Orchestra, the Basel Symphony Orchestra and the Swedish National Orchestra in Gothenburg. In the US he was artistic director of the Baltimore Summer Festival and from 2002-2009 was Music Director of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. Since 2010 he has been Principal Conductor of the UK's Northern Sinfonia amongst other appointments.

Sadly, to generations of concert audiences Dvorak's Violin Concerto in a minor Op.53 has been in the shadow of his more immediately endearing Cello Concerto. Structurally a much more adventurous piece, requiring more effort on behalf of the audience, it is nevertheless highly regarded by violinists. The work had a protracted and often difficult gestation from Dvorak's point of view. When meeting the admiring Brahms in 1877, the older composer heard that Dvorak was working on a violin concerto, and so introduced him to the great violinist Joseph Joachim, friend and confidante of Brahms. Dvorak was invited to Joachim's home in Berlin for long discussions, leading to a completion of the violin concerto and its dispatch to Joachim in the autumn of 1897.

Following Joachim's disapproving advice, Dvorak completely revised the MS: "not a single measure was left unaltered" in his own words. The new version was returned to Joachim, who said not a word about it for two years. Eventually he posted to Dvorak a large number of drastic suggestions for its re-improvement. The composer returned to Berlin for further discussions, culminating in Joachim playing the concerto in rehearsal with the Berlin conservatory orchestra. But the première of the concerto only took place in Prague in 1883, played by a Czech violinist. Joachim never played the work. It may well have been his fixation on the expected Germanic structure of violin concertos that irritated Joachim so much, since Dvorak's structure for the a minor concerto is far from conventional sonata form, being rhapsodic and innovative.

As in her Beethoven performance, Liza Ferschtman is scrupulous in observing Dvorak's written instructions, regardless of accumulated performance practices. Both she and Venzago manage to imbue the frequent changes in pace and melodic content of the first movement with a sense of natural flow which is quite delightful. Dvorak's important woodwind parts are given as winsome accompaniments to the soloist. Ferschman's tone is pure and sweet, with high notes and harmonics steadily floated above the stave. Her soft playing is lovely, without loosing tonal beauty. Technically she is secure and well-focussed, with truly expressive phrasing and shaded dynamics. The affecting little coda to the first movement leads without pause into the Adagio non troppo, where the shade of Beethoven's slow movements seems to dwell. Ferschtman plays this melodic stream with a heart-warming simplicity, ensuring that the ever-increasing ornamentation of the melody grows organically, and is not merely a virtuoso's showing-off. The finale, a robust Furiant dance, has a catchy propulsive mood which points to sheer joy in playing from soloist and orchestra alike. In short, this is a reading which can sit unashamedly within the pantheon of excellent performances by such as Joseph Suk, Maxim Vengerov, Sara Chang and Arabella Steinbacher.

Northstar's first class DSD recording is natural and impeccably balanced as usual, in a pleasantly resonant but not reverberant acoustic, and a low noise floor. The soloist is portrayed as standing just in front of the orchestra, blending well with the orchestral sound without any obtrusive spotlighting; the violin tone is given plenty of air to develop.

Most recordings of the Dvorak Violin Concerto are paired with other works by the composer or his son in law, Josef Suk. Challenge have chosen instead Gershwin's 'American in Paris', which will no doubt raise eyebrows. The choice of works would make a perfectly feasible half of a concert programme, but is unorthodox, to say the least, for a recording. Nevertheless, it worked fine for me, and if you don't mind this juxtaposition (and a somewhat short timed programme at 52:30) don't hesitate to acquire this disc.

Venzago inspires the NPOA to a rousing rendition of what really is Gershwin's tone poem (if not in name). His basic tempo is almost exactly that of Fiedler's classic 1959 recording with the Boston Pops (Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue - Fiedler), but he does add a couple of minutes to the playing time. The piece's overall timing does not at all imply an overall lack of vitality and energy in Venzago's reading. He does, however, take somewhat longer than Fiedler to relish Gershwin's succulent slower sections to the full, making them even more relaxed and atmospheric. What strikes me is the kaleidoscope of orchestral colours on display here. William G. Hyland's recent biography of Gershwin thoroughly torpedoed the myth that Gershwin was a poor orchestrator, relying on arrangers to do the work for him. This was true only when he was over-committed and under pressure. As a self-called "dabbler" in the Classical idiom without a Conservatory background, Gershwin was always self-concious about his prowess, and evidence shows that he took intensive lessons in composition and orchestration from many teachers during most of his career.

In 1928 Gershwin went to Paris, armed with a letter of introduction from Ravel to that doyen of composer/music teachers, Nadia Boulanger, hoping that she too would give him lessons. Having looked at some of his MSS, she pronounced that there was nothing she could teach him. Gershwin soaked up the atmosphere of Paris, its Jazz scene, the music of Ravel and Debussy as well as that of Les Six. All of which influences are clearly on display in Venzago's interpretation of An American in Paris. He has his tongue firmly in cheek just as much as Fiedler, and the greater size and sophistication of the NPOA brings much more detail to the fore than is usually heard. Some of Gershwin's breathtaking and often subtle textures are ravishingly presented, particularly those accompanying the sleazy trumpet tune which emerges as the "American" becomes homesick - especial praise for the NPOA's Principal Trumpet's solos, which are superbly voiced.

In fact, the whole brass section is excellent, with some delicious slides from the trombones, like the rest of the orchestra obviously enjoying their Gershwin outing. Venzago's expert guidance of the work's transitions from cameo to cameo brings an overall clarity of vision and continuity of narrative, and he manages the controlled excitement of Gershwin's sequence of false riotous climaxes interspersed with soft, slow interludes towards the end of the piece with true Hollywood style. A demonstration-worthy recording includes a stunningly well-focussed sound stage, notably in front to back perspective. I was thrilled by this reading in both sonics and performance and can't keep it out of my player.

An unusual coupling, certainly, but offering two outstanding performances in my view. It adds up to a very desirable disc if you are happy to accept the unusual programming, bearing in mind the competition in both the Dvorak and the Gershwin already on SA-CD.

Copyright © 2011 John Miller and HRAudio.net

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