Prokofiev: The 2 Violin Concertos / Steinbacher, Petrenko

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PROKOFIEV Violin Concertos: No. 1 in D; No. 2 in g. Sonata for Solo Violin in D Arabella Steinbacher (vn); Vasily Petrenko, cond; Russian Natl O PENTATONE 5186395 (SACD: 64:27)

It’s difficult to write a critical review of an artist towards whom you are favorably disposed and whose latest recording you really want to like. Two previous releases by Arabella Steinbacher, neither one of which I got to review but acquired on my own, made a very strong and positive impression on me. One was her Shostakovich concertos CD with Andris Nelsons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, and the other, her Bartók concertos SACD with Marek Janowski and the Suisse Romande Orchestra. Both were reviewed and recommended by Robert Maxham, in 30:6 and 34:3 respectively. In 35:1, though, I did finally get to review Steinbacher’s Brahms Concerto, with Fabio Luisi and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, and that’s where things started to go south. Out of 25 recordings of the Brahms concerto I surveyed, Steinbacher’s, at 42:35, was the slowest, and her reading, while unfussy, struck me as cautious and cool.

Now we have Steinbacher’s take on Prokofiev’s two concertos and Solo Violin Sonata, and though it has to be acknowledged that she brings her own distinctive approach to these scores, I would have to question some of her interpretive quirks. One of them is very pronounced right at the beginning of the First Concerto. To say that Steinbacher indulges in a liberal application of portamento would be an understatement. Just within the few opening bars of her entrance, I count six slithery slides, and not just on upward shifts, but on downward ones as well. One or two I’d be okay with, but this is really overdone and of questionable appropriateness to the music. I hear the violin’s entrance in this concerto much as I hear its entrance in Sibelius’s, remote and even icy. Steinbacher prefers to fatten the goose. Oh, and by the way, did I mention that the tempo is slower by about a minute than any of the 10 other versions I have?

When it comes to the Second Concerto, admittedly, Steinbacher’s second movement is of a limpid beauty, her tone, especially in the upper reaches of her instrument, taking on a shimmering, opaline quality. But her rhythmic pointing in the first movement and marcato bowing strokes in the last movement are no match for Heifetz’s fast and furious attacks. The solo sonata is very well done, but there’s not much to it or to be said for it. Prokofiev never intended the piece to be played by a solo violin; he wrote it as a kind of pedagogical exercise for a class of perhaps as many as 20 or more players all playing in unison.

Steinbacher’s Prokofiev has its memorable moments, but a few of them may be memorable for the wrong reasons. This is a very, very talented young lady who obviously has her own ideas about how the music she plays ought to go, and she has the courage to put those ideas on the line. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t, but whether one agrees or disagrees with her interpretations, her technical mastery is beyond question. As always, you can expect state of the art sound from PentaTone’s SACDs, and Vasily Petrenko leads the National Russian Orchestra in highly illuminating performances.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: PTC5186395

  • UPC: 827949039560

  • Label: Pentatone

  • Composer: Sergei Prokofiev

  • Conductor: Vasily Petrenko

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Russian National Orchestra

  • Performer: Arabella Steinbacher