BLOCH Baal Shem. BERNSTEIN Serenade. BARBER Violin Concerto

by Walter Simmons

BLOCH Baal Shem. BERNSTEIN Serenade. BARBER Violin Concerto – Vadim Gluzman (vn); John Neschling, cond; São Paulo SO – BIS SACD-1662 (70:31)

I have reviewed several previous recordings featuring the artistry of Ukrainian-Israeli-American Vadim Gluzman, and have found the playing of this violinist, now in his late 30s, to reveal impeccable technical precision, as well as considerable power and passion. His performances of staples of the 20th-century violin repertoire, such as the searingly intense Shostakovich sonata, rank with those of the greatest artists who have addressed these works. This new recording meets the same high standard. The only problem is this: We live at a time when violinists of the highest caliber are plentiful. Can the classical music marketplace support this number of fine artists? Certainly there is little or nothing of importance to be gleaned from new recordings of the popular concertos of the 19th century, which glut the catalogs. But now, even relatively recent works that were novelties just a few decades ago have been adequately represented. So one confronts the familiar question: To whom is this new release directed? Do the virtues of SACD recording technology place this recording ahead of other contenders? The Barber concerto, lovely as it is, has become a “war-horse;” virtually every violinist of the first rank has recorded it, as have many lesser lights. The Bernstein Serenade, an ingratiating conflation of reminiscences of Stravinsky, Shostakovich, and Der Rosenkavalier, captured the attention of violinists more recently perhaps, but a quick search reveals more than a dozen performances of this engaging work, many featuring the world’s most celebrated soloists. The Bloch proves to be the relative novelty here, as Baal Shem, one of the composer’s most popular compositions in its original violin-piano version, is heard here in the less familiar orchestral transcription. It is far superior in this latter garb, which gives considerable stature to a work that often impresses as Jewish salon music. I have never heard the familiar “Nigun” movement played with such incisive intensity, unblemished by sentimental excesses. But even this orchestral version has been available on recording for some time now. So I return to my original question: To whom is this new release addressed? The SACD format does provide an additional degree of detail, but not enough to warrant replacing a previously satisfying, relatively recent recording. I raise these points not to disparage Mr. Gluzman in the slightest—his playing here is truly stupendous—nor to needle BIS—for many years one of the world’s most adventurous record companies—but to raise what is becoming an increasing concern: the rapidly growing number of superior performing artists with no indication of a comparable increase in the size of the market for such talent. I suppose that the consumer of this new release is likely to be a violin enthusiast whose interest is perhaps just beginning to expand beyond the standards of the 19th century. I can assure those listeners that they can proceed with confidence: This recording represents the three works to their fullest advantage. And, to those who respond defensively that the whole violin repertoire has been recorded—what do I expect them to play?—I reply, there are still important works that have not been recorded, or recorded adequately.
An additional dimension of interest here is the playing of the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Brazilian-born, Vienna-trained John Neschling. Neschling, a composer as well as conductor, claims to be a grand-nephew of both Arnold Schoenberg and Artur Bodanzky. A controversial figure, he is acknowledged to have raised the orchestra’s standard of performance considerably, although personal issues resulted in the termination of his contract last year. Apparently he is being replaced by Yan Pascal Tortelier. Although a recording featuring a soloist is not the ideal context in which to evaluate an orchestra, the São Paulo ensemble offers accompaniments of remarkable clarity, precision, and richness.