Expanding the Fiddler’s Repertory

<i> Herbert Glass is a frequent contributor to The Times. </i>

In a worldwide explosion of fiddlers--no, they aren’t subject to spontaneous combustion--good violinists seem to be everywhere these days, whereas, at most times since World War II, only a handful has dominated the international scene. With such quantity comes an expansion of the repertory--on recordings, at any rate.

Live performances of Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto are not the rarities they used to be, thanks in large part to the popularity of Itzhak Perlman--whose EMI/Angel recording was a recent Grammy-winner--and his willingness to program the work.

At least three new recordings of the concerto have appeared in the past few months, with a fourth newly arrived from Dmitry Sitkovetsky (Virgin Classics 91143), who seems at home with the score technically without quite projecting its biting humor and wilder flights of energy. His inhibition may be the product of Andrew Davis’ cautious conducting--particularly in the usually hell-bent finale--of the BBC Symphony.


The coupling is Shostakovich’s hopelessly glum, enervated Second Violin Concerto, which the performers treat skillfully and, mercifully, with dispatch.

The Swedish BIS label achieves a coup with the first recording ever of the unpublished original version (1903-4) of the Sibelius Violin Concerto, coupled with the familiar 1905 edition (BIS 500).

The longer, by some 100 measures, original is by no means a dud. The big tunes of 1905 are in place, embellished in the outer movements with a good deal of thematic material which, while irrelevant to the main thrust of the score, has great charm.

Both editions find a hugely persuasive advocate in the 23-year-old Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos, who made an impressive debut at Hollywood Bowl last summer. In this very resonant recording, Kavakos’ tone may be bigger than life, but its vibrancy and tensile strength hardly suggest engineers’ inventions. Kavakos is both a spirited and a sensible performer, offering warmth of tone and interpretive intensity without slighting note values.

His helpful colleagues here are the Lahti Symphony conducted by Osmo Vanska), Lahti being, according to the informative program booklet (a rarity these days), “a modern centre for sports, culture, trade and industry,” 60 miles north of Helsinki.

Alban Berg’s daunting Chamber Concerto is precluded by its complexity, length (40 minutes) and odd scoring--solo violin and piano, with 15 winds--from finding a place in the concert repertory. Its appearance on recordings is hardly commonplace either.

The Chamber Concerto is most commonly the province of modern-music soloists and conductors rather than of big-money performers. How this music can blossom in the hands of Romantic virtuosos, as differentiated from hardcore modernists, is blazingly affirmed in a reissue (Sony Classical 45999) of a 1986 recording in which the violinist is Isaac Stern and the pianist Peter Serkin (adept in any repertory), with Claudio Abbado conducting winds of the London Symphony.

The opulence of Stern’s tone and his tastefully applied Romantic portamenti heighten the innately sultry air of the music immeasurably. Stern’s presence, with the strongly sympathetic leadership of Abbado--no slighting of the excellent Serkin is intended--gives us a burning foretaste of the emotional world of “Lulu.”

The coupling with Brahms’ Double Concerto--a passionately intense reading by Stern, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the Chicago Symphony under Abbado--is hardly outre in view of the Second Viennese School’s allegiance to Brahms.

Berg’s Chamber Concerto sounds a more crabbed and “modern” work in the technically irreproachable interpretation of violinist Thomas Zehetmair, pianist Oleg Maisenberg and winds of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under Heinz Holliger (Teldec 46019). The relentlessly close-up recording helps create this impression, but Holliger’s interpretation is also pushier, more fiercely accented than Abbado’s, leaving us with little of the langoruosness that makes Sony’s less tidy edition so special.

Teldec’s coupling is apt, the First Chamber Symphony of Schoenberg--whose scoring for 15 winds Berg mirrored in the Chamber Concerto--in a propulsive reading by Holliger and his superb wind band that exudes a fittingly fetid air of Romantic hysteria.

A possibly healthier sort of hysteria informs Janacek’s 1921 Violin and Piano Sonata, which Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich view as a nonstop cry of anguish (Deutsche Grammophon 427 351), while the team of Sidney Harth and Ward Davenny (Crystal 634) balances drama with lyricism.

As couplings, Kremer-Argerich offer a searing Bartok First Sonata (like Janacek’s from 1921, but both more modern and less individual) and Messiaen’s brief 1932 Theme and Variations. Harth and Davenny play Bloch’s Second Sonata, which also benefits from their subdued approach, and an appealingly Bartokian Sonata (1960) by American composer Carlton Gamer.