Excellent performances of two underrated American violin works

Excellent performances of two underrated American violin works
​I’ve been on Pentatone’s case lately – for good reason. (Please see my blog for reviews.) However, this latest release is a bit different. And a lot better than what I’ve been hearing from the label so far this year. For two primary reasons: 1) It’s the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, which is in superb form these days; and 2) it’s conducted by Stephane Deneve, who is a superb conductor and always impresses me with his every recording.
Deneve imbues these two pieces with vitality, musical insight and a real understanding of the very essence of the music. And they come alive as never before. And one immediately recognizes the orchestra is engaged, enthusiastic and dynamic – which is an inestimable improvement over the San Francisco Symphony in Pentatone’s recent release of the Bartok Piano Concertos. 
And then there’s James Ehnes. I love his rich, resonant, wooden tone (not as husky as Zukerman’s, but in the same ballpark). But let’s be honest, he’s not the most exciting player. He can be a little sleepy on record. But not here. Deneve takes charge of the proceedings, commands the attention of everyone involved, and encourages real spirit in his playing. (Just as he did with the Jussen brothers in their 2017 recording of the Poulenc Double Concerto on DG).

Simply put, these performances of both works are inspiring and full of life. Moreover, they display a stimulating sense of new discovery. And that’s actually quite an achievement, because both of these pieces are a little reserved rather than outwardly appealing. Consequently, the Bernstein isn’t all that frequently recorded (though two excellent ones come immediately to mind – Gluzman and Neschling on BIS [2009] and Brian Lewis and Hugh Wolff on Delos [2006]). And this is only the second recording of the Williams concerto. So a fresh new recording of both is most welcome.
Bernstein’s Serenade has always struck me as a slightly odd piece – not sure if it wants to be a full-scale violin concerto or a concert suite. But it is so characterful, descriptive and with moments of virtuosity as played here, it succeeds at being both.
Ehnes is the perfect violinist in the opening Lento – his tone sweet and rich at the same time, beautifully singing in the aching, soaring melodic lines. The Allegro marcato then instantly springs to life, as the orchestra (scored for strings and percussion only) asserts itself with authority, with the violin dancing around them delightfully. This continues into the Allegretto before the capricious Presto takes off on an exciting, almost breathless jaunt – marked by perky spiccato
A lengthy Adagio leads into an even lengthier finale, which begins very severely, but soon erupts into a drunken discourse with unmistakable, jazzy influences reminiscent of Bernstein’s music for the film On the Waterfront – written the same year (1954). And the molto vivace final section brings the piece to a rousing conclusion.

Deneve infuses each movement with a thoroughly idiomatic, traditionally American flavor – which is unmistakably Leonard Bernstein – and brings infectious vitality to the livelier sections. I’ve never heard the piece sound so delightful, or all that exciting. Or, for that matter, not even all that distinctively “Bernstein”. But all that changes in this performance. It is so full of fervent melodies and infectious, jazzy dance rhythms, Bernstein’s unique character shines through – revealing this to be one his finer symphonic creations. And with James Ehnes as the lively soloist – well, this is a real surprise.

John Williams‘ (1st) Violin Concerto, written 20 years later, is a fine piece too – at least in this recording of it. I thought it was a bit reserved and rambling in Gil Shaham’s 2001 DG recording of it, and was never completely convinced by or overly impressed with it. But in this new reading, it is full of an impassioned, emotional outpouring of rhapsodic singing lines and rich harmonies which was somewhat curtailed in the earlier reading – perhaps in an effort to make it a more “important”, “serious” work rather than just a trifle from a “film composer”.
And again, just as in the Bernstein, James Ehnes is perfect in the opening Moderato – his ravishing sound bringing such vibrancy to the singing lines. It is a bit too long for sure, especially as it is followed by a similarly slow-moving central movement. But here his sweetness of tone is even more rewarding in a peaceful, contemplative way (as indicated in the score).
In the final movement, which at last provides some much needed liveliness, Deneve unabashedly brings out the unmistakable John Williams element in the opening, with chimes and percussion announcing its arrival, and later with golden, chordal brass. That may sound like a strange observation, but the piece really doesn’t sound much like John Williams (at least not the John Williams of E.T.) – until here. I have always thought John Williams tries too determinedly to NOT sound like himself in his non-film scores, so it is refreshing to hear a bit of the John Williams we know and love in his violin concerto. 
The piece is still rather unassuming, and really could use a Scherzo in between the two slow opening movements. But it is so much more engaging and coherent in this new recording, it gains in significance and becomes more musically satisfying. It is certainly infinitely more interesting and substantive than Williams’ dismal 2nd Concerto written in 2022 for Anne-Sophie Mutter, whose recording of it on DG is truly abysmal.

This Pentatone release is a bit of a melange. According to the booklet, the two pieces were recorded 4 years apart, each with a different recording production. The Bernstein was recorded in November, 2019 by the St. Louis Symphony team, and the Williams in January, 2023 by Pentatone. Remarkably, the recorded sound is excellent on both occasions. Why they are just now appearing (together) on this CD is a bit of a mystery, but in the end it doesn’t matter. Both pieces are superbly played and they make perfect discmates.
I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this nearly as much as I did. It is a wonderful recording in every way and a very pleasant surprise.

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