Hyperion continues its "Romantic Violin Concerto" series with one name familiar to fans of the virtuoso violin — Henri Vieuxtemps — and one unlikely to be known to anyone but specialists — Ferdinand David. In each CD of music dating from the 1840s and ‘50s we get the composer's Fourth and Fifth Concertos plus a substantial filler, with conductor Martyn Brabbins presiding over different soloists and orchestras. Both discs are highly worth acquiring, and the David music has no rivals in the catalog.
The only work remotely close to being a warhorse is Vieuxtemps' No. 5 (1858-9), consisting of a substantial first movement followed by an imposing cadenza, a short but lovely slow movement, and a one-minute allegro-finale which practically defines the word "perfunctory" as it tosses around some themes from the first movement; all of it is played without pause. A comparison with a performance by Arthur Grumiaux with Manuel Rosenthal leading the Lamoureux Orchestra reveals some striking differences, even if one puts aside the pinched sound of the Philips stereo LP compared to the bloom and realistic presence offered us by Hyperion's engineers. (I haven't heard the Philips CD transfer in their Eloquence series.) Grumiaux's silvery tone and aristocratic bearing are distinct from the plumier sound of Viviane Hagner‘s violin (she plays a 1717 Stradivarius). I found Grumiaux a bit more engaging in the typically Romantic (i.e., stormy and moody) opening movement, but was enchanted by the lyrical warmth of Hagner's slow movement. Brabbins plays up the dramatic passages of the first movement with sufficient force, but Rosenthal gives an extra edge of tension, of impulsive forward movement, as if he and the Lamoureux really believed that this is an important concerto deserving the same level of commitment as, say, Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto or at least Saint-Saens' Third.
The Vieuxtemps Fourth is a striking work in its own right, and like the Fifth has been recorded by such titans as Heifetz and Perlman. It's unusual in being a four-movement concerto, opening with a hyper-melancholy Andante with a rather gorgeous 4-minute introduction for the orchestra alone before the violin insinuates itself. A single held note leads into the yet slower Adagio religioso. After a robust Scherzo, the Finale marziale opens with the orchestra alone returning to the mood and themes of the Andante, then offering a brisk march-like tune. When the solo violin finally re-enters, it plays the tune in what Calum Macdonald's excellent program note calls "a good humoured and less than military manner" and finishes the concerto with "ever more breathtaking prodigies of bravura right up to the concluding bars." Hagner is more than up to the task, playing with a sweetness and lightness of tone that make the spectacular flourishes highly musical, never showoff-y. Brabbins and his orchestra make the most of Vieuxtemps' considerable skills of orchestration, with satisfying passages for woodwinds and horns.
The bonus on this CD is an 18-minute Fantasia appassionata, written soon after the Fifth Concerto. It's an effective display piece, with many varying moods, most of them charmingly sentimental and lyrical — well suited to Hagner's warmth and cantabile approach.
Vieuxtemps, a Belgian, was a violin prodigy, said to be the most famous player in Europe after the death of Paganini. (He twice toured America as well.) The German Ferdinand David, if not quite so renowned, had a considerable reputation all the same: he premiered Felix Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in 1845, after having advised the composer on writing for the violin, and played Berlioz' Reverie and Caprice under the baton of the Frenchman. (Like Mendelssohn, David came from a Jewish family in Hamburg and by curious coincidence was born in the very same house as Mendelssohn, a year later.) He was also concertmaster of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and a famous musical scholar-editor, as well as composer of five violin concertos and two symphonies.
David's music on this disc inhabits a musical world closer to Mendelssohn and bel canto opera than to the more Lisztian drama of Vieuxtemps. The two concertos follow the traditional three-movement structure (fast-slow-fast), with the Fifth being somewhat more Sturm und Drang (to use annotator Calum Macdonald's characterization) in its opening movement. But David's skills of composition are of a high level—this is not dull, by-the-numbers music, even if it doesn't live in the exalted heights of the great Romantic composers. There is a freshness of invention throughout both concertos, an overall charm, with cantabile outpourings in the slow movements and sprightly rhythms and playful flourishes in the finales. The welcome bonus on this CD is an Andante and Scherzo capriccioso, the briefer Andante leading into a dazzling showpiece for the violin, a tarantella movement that is more "impish" than "diabolical," as Macdonald hears it. It's a piece I would gladly hear — and see — in concert. Israeli violinist HagaiShaham is seemingly effortless in his command of both the lyricism and the virtuosity of this music. His elegant performances, like Hagner's in the Vieuxtemps works, don't try to "sell" the music with excessive sentiment or flashy display but make it seem as natural as breathing. Again MartynBrabbins is the able accompanist, this time with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.
As with the Vieuxtemps CD, Hyperion provides excellent sound, warm and vivid, with the soloist not overly prominent. With no other recordings of David's violin music available (to the best of my knowledge), the high quality of the performances and the engineering are doubly welcome. For Vieuxtemps, listeners might want to investigate Naxos' three CDs of all seven violin concertos, with MishaKeylin and various orchestras, or a Naxos import of Jascha Heifetz's incomparable 78s-era versions of the Fourth and Fifth Concertos. But for a pairing of these two works in modern sound on a single CD, Hagner and Brabbins are more than welcome.