SIBELIUS:  Violin Concerto in D Minor, Op. 47.  Two Serenades for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 69.  Two Pieces for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 77.  Two Humoresques, Op. 87.  Four Humoresques for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 89.  Suite for Violin and Strings, Op. 117.
Christian Tetzlaff, violin; Danish National Symphony Orch/Thomas Dausgaard, cond.
VIRGIN CLASSICS 45534 (F) (DDD) TT:  78:47

With the breaking of the once-sacrosanct 74-minute barrier, Virgin brings us this convenient, comprehensive survey of all of Sibelius’s concertante works for violin, including a surprising number of novelties.

The program, arranged in chronological order of composition—disregarding any subsequent revisions—begins with the concerto, and it’s as good a place as any to begin, as the performance sets the interpretive tone for the entire program. From the spacious, mysterious opening, we know this won’t be a conventionally virtuoso reading. The climaxes build patiently and organically, seemingly on their own. Clear orchestral textures, encased in a slightly recessed ambience, suggest the requisite austerity, but an injection of passionate lyricism keeps the mood from turning altogether grim. The slow movement doesn’t strain for epic grandeur; the woodwind duets sing plaintively, the violin answers affirmatively. Forthright tympani set an unwavering pace for the finale, and the tuttis step proudly in time. The reading is admirable for its rugged integrity, but conductor Dausgaard could have intervened more firmly in the underplayed codas. That of the first movement pulls its punches a bit; the concerto’s final chords also hang fire, nor do they sound precisely together.
Among the shorter pieces—for which, after all, most collectors will want this CD—the Two Pieces of 1914-5 are rather interesting. The first, Cantique, begins with an expansive, oddly Elgarian chorale; its central section feints towards blossoming into song, turning abruptly bleak and angular. In the second, Devotion, quasi-ostinato patterns in the orchestra maintain a more characteristic Sibelian unease.

Also worth getting to know is the Suite, Op. 117, offering a lighter, less troubled mien than much of the composer’s mature output, and which he apparently hoped to suppress. The first of its three brief movements has a hearty, infectious waltz swing; the second contrasts lyric outpourings in the orchestral strings with a chastely expressive solo; the third posits a moto perpetuo solo over a chipper pizzicato-based accompaniment.

The Serenades and Humoresques are not unknown quantities on record, but the competition—including Oistrakh’s rather labored Humoresques, once offered in a variety of Melodiya LP licensings—is hard to find, and these are worthy performances. The Serenades counterpose searching, poignant expression from the soloist against cool, transparent orchestral textures, while the Humoresques are lighter in spirit as their title suggests.

Tetzlaff’s playing, as always, is musical and attractive. Even working in the highest positions, his tone in lyric lines maintains a vibrant shimmer, and he manages the harmonics in Op. 89, No. 3 with a minimum of “whistling.” His handling of multiple voices where Sibelius asks for them—in the concerto’s first-movement cadenza, and again in Op. 89, No. 2 —is most impressive. Given his mastery of these technical hurdles, it’s odd that he’s not immaculately in tune in the agitated, scampering theme of the second Serenade; a few notes also fly sharp in the finale of the Suite. Still, he is commanding in this difficult repertoire, and Dausgaard supports him flexibly.

S.F.V. (July 2003)