Friday 22 February 2019

Britten & Mendelssohn violin concertos from Sebastian Bohren & Royal Liverpool Philharmonic

Britten & Mendelssohn - Sebastian Bohren - RCA Red Seal
Britten & Mendelssohn Violin Concertos; Sebastian Bohren, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Andrew Litton;
RCA Red Seal

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 20 February 2019 
Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Britten's youthful concerto paired with Mendelssohn's classic in a disc from the young Swiss violinist

Benjamin Britten's Violin Concerto was premiered in New York, with a Spanish violinist, an English conductor and an American orchestra (Antonio Brosa, John Barbirolli, New York Philharmonic Orchestra), and it has remained a work which has had an interesting career with performers from outside of the UK.

On this new disc from RCA Red Seal, we have a Swiss violinist, American conductor and English orchestra; the young Swiss violinist Sebastian Bohren is the soloist in Britten's Violin Concerto with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Andrew Litton, in a programme which also includes Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor Op.64 and Tchaikovsky's Serenade melancolique Op.26.

Britten's concerto was written in the late 1930s, premiered in 1940 and revised in the 1950s. Interestingly there seems to be a recording of Brosa, made in 1952 with Ian Whyte and the BBC Scottish Orchestra though I am not sure if it has ever been issued on disc. The work's early recorded history is patchy, and Britten himself did not record it until 1970 with Mark Lubotsky, but since then many major figures have attacked the work.

The work opens with that wonderful bitter-sweet melody on the violin over the striking rhythmic figure in the orchestra, a combination which I have always found very magical.
Here Sebastian Bohren is sweet-toned and elegant, but with a lithe sound which has a remarkably wiry strength to it as well. He and Litton bring out the essential bitter-sweet nature of the writing, and speeds here seem to be remarkably steady, yet there is also a feeling of the orchestra's relentless tread to the pacing. Bohren is excellent in the moments of bright bravura playing later on in the movement, and this is certainly a version which is full of drama. I was particularly taken with the return of the opening theme, hauntingly quiet on the strings with the rhythmic figure in the violin.

The second movement scherzo is vividly done, fast and furious there seems to be a lot of anger underlying the performance, whilst the slower section is rather intense with Bohren adding a brilliance to the sound. The orchestra really screws up the tension to the climax, which is released by Bohren very up front account of the cadenza. The passacaglia finale is a really powerful response to this, tightening the screw with a real feeling of anger again, until finally we get some sort of quiet release with the transparent textures and relative calm of the final moments.

Four years before Brosa premiered Britten's concerto, the young composer heard him as the soloist in Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto at the Proms at the Queen's Hall. Here, Sebastian Bohren makes the concerto the pairing for the Britten. Bohren's elegance, sweet tone and lithe sound are much in evidence here. The opening movement though has a strength to it as well as the sweetness. Neither Bohren nor Litton hangs around, and the movement flows well with a nice robustness to the accompaniment to combat the sweetness. Bohren gives us a beautifully sung line in the slow movement, yet still with a core of strength, and the finale is a nice combination of the perky and the muscular.

As a bon bouche, the disc finishes with Tchaikovsky's Serenade melancolique, a work for violin and orchestra written five years after the violin concerto. Relatively short, it is a delightful piece.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) - Violin Concerto in E minor Op.64
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) - Violin Concerto Op.15
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) - Serenade Melancolique Op.26
Sebastian Bohren (violin)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
Andrew Litton (conductor)
Recorded 9-11 December 2017, the Friary, Liverpool
RCA RED SEAL 19075871142 1CD

Available on-line.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • The full Egmont: Beethoven's incidental music linked by extracts of Goethe's play (★★★½) - CD review
  • Sweeter than Roses: music of Purcell & his contemporaries from Anna Dennis & Sounds Baroque  - (★★) CD review
  • Sung Poetry: Kitty Whately & Simon Lepper - From the Pens of Women (★★) - concert review
  • Choral music for Advent and Christmas from Portsmouth  - CD review
  • Love songs in Temple Church: Brahms and Schumann for Valentine's Day (★★★½) - concert review
  • An obsession with Norse myths: composer Gavin Higgins introduces his new opera The Monstrous Child  - interview
  • Delightful harmonies: Carl Czerny's arrangement of Beethoven's Septet (★★) - concert review
  • Verdi in Oman: La traviata at the Royal Opera House, Muscat (★★) - opera review
  • Youth shines: Savitri Grier in Elgar's Violin Concerto - concert review
  • From play to opera: Marlowe's Edward II and Benjamin & Crimp's Lessons in Love & Violence - feature article 
  • A romantic at heart: I chat to violinist Sarah Chang about her forthcoming Cadogan Hall recital - interview
  • Home

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