BRAHMS: Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80. Alto Rhapsody, Op. 53. Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56a
Yvonne Naef, contralto; of the Netherlands Radio Male Chorus; Netherlands Radio Symphony Orch/Hans Vonk, cond.
PENTATONE SACD PTC 5186 045 TT: 42:44

RUBINSTEIN: Piano Concerto No. 4 in D minor, Op. 70. SCHARWENKA: Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 32.
Marc-André Hamelin, pianist; BBC Scottish Symphony Orch/Michael Stern, cond.

TCHAIKOVSKY: Violin Concerto in D, Op. 35. Méditation in D minor, Op. 42 No. l. "Danse Russe" from Act III of Swan Lake Ballet, Op. 20.
Joshua Bell, violinist; Berlin Philharmonic Orch/Michael Tilson Thomas, cond.

Pentatone's Brahms disk contains the last recordings of Dutch conductor Hans Vonk (1942-2004) who figured prominently in the musical world for four decades and was associated with many leading orchestras. In recent years he was principal conductor of the St. Louis Symphony (1996-2002) and the Netherlands Radio Symphony (2002-2004) as well as appearing with many major international orchestras. Producer Job Maarse relates his association with Vonk during the two decades he collaborated with him and mentions at the time of this recording (August 2003) Vonk already was seriously ill and conducted from a wheelchair. One would never suspect this based on these dynamic performances of the overture and variations, and, under the circumstances, there is a sense of poignancy in the sadness of Alto Rhapsody. Contralto Yvonne Naef is excellent, the 5.0 surround sound among the best of Pentatone's new digital recordings. Program notes are provided in Dutch, German and English but, surprisingly, do not include text of the Rhapsody. Playing time of this SACD is short—but understandable.

Marc-André Hamelin continues his spectacular series of recordings for Hyperion with this stunning coupling of two virtuoso showpieces. Anton Rubinstein's Concerto No. 4 isn't heard much today although in the past it was a favorite of Josef Hoffman (whose 1937 live performance with Fritz Reiner conducting currently is available on VAI), and some collectors may remember the vivid '50s Columbia recording with Oscar Levant, Dimitri Mitropoulos and the New York Philharmonic which never was issued on CD. A later recording on the same label with Raymond Lewenthal and Charles Mackerras conducting is available on Elan. Xaver Scharwenka's Concerto No. 1 was completed in 1877 and enjoyed moderate success at the hands of virtuoso pianists of the time although it also soon disappeared from the concert hall until Earl Wild played it with Erich Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony in 1968; his RCA recording made the next year is available on Elan CD 82266. It's a dazzling concerto with a scintillating Scherzo second movement. Playing time of Wild's recording and the new one by Hamelin are almost identical to the second in playing time; both are magnificent in every way. The 5.0 surround sound of Hyperion's release places performers in front with the piano rather recessed. Recommended!

Joshua Bell's many admirers will wish to get this live recording of Tchaikovsky's concerto made in Berlin in January 2005. This is Bell's second recording of the work, the first, with the Cleveland Orchestra directed by Vladimir Ashkenazy dates from 1988 and has just been reissued in Decca's Joshua Bell Edition. The Berlin performance is fiery with everyone on top form. Appropriately, a filler is Méditation which the composer originally considered for the second movement of the concerto. The "Russian Dance" from Act III of Swan Lake, with its elaborate violin solo, completes the SACD. Even with this, total playing time for this disk is less than 52 min. Sony's 5.0 surround sound is rather close-up but satisfying. CD notes quote Bell as stating this is his first issued recording from a live concert. It also suggests that the other works were recorded live as well, which they weren't —they were recorded during the same time period, but not during live conceerts.

R.E.B. (February 2006)