BARBER: Violin Concerto. Violin Concerto. KORNGOLD: About Nothing (Suite). BRUCH: Violin Concerto No. 1.

BARBER: Violin Concerto. KORNGOLD: About Nothing (Suite). Gil Shaham, violin; Andre Previn, piano and conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 439 886-2 [DDD]; 61:10. Produced by Alison Ames and Werner Mayer
BARBER: Violin Concerto. BRUCH: Violin Concerto No. 1. Anne Akiko Meyers, violin; Christopher Seaman conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. CANYON/EMERGO EC 3699-2 [DDD]; 45:39 Produced by James Mallinson and Tamio Watanabe.

Like so many of Samuel Barber’s works, the Violin Concerto has become firmly entrenched in the active repertoire, appearing frequently in concert performance and on recordings and chosen by celebrity violinists as a proven crowd-pleaser. Its chief appeal lies in its first two movements, which offer a generous outpouring of typically Barbarian lyrical beauty. But as lovely as they are, they are not terribly difficult, either technically or interpretively. The third movement is difficult technically, not interpretively, and is something of a throw-away. The main interpretive challenge is to balance the work: to make a conceptual distinction between the first and second movements, and to make the finale sound as though it has an artistic reason for being, beyond giving the soloist an opportunity to play fast. This latter is a lost cause, incidentally. Nevertheless,  a reasonably accomplished violinist can make a favorable impression with the concerto, and a fine artist can do even more. Now that the work has become familiar enough to violinists that each one is no longer learning it “from scratch,” there is quite an abundance of excellent performances on recordings.Stern/Bernstein/NYPO has always been a favorite, but I don’t believe it is currently available;  Oliveira/Slatkin/St. Louis SO is excellent, as is Salerno-Sonnenberg/M. Shostakovich/LSO. Now we have two more — one good, and the other even better.

I will begin with the Campion/Emergo disc, briefly and apologetically. Anne Akiko Meyers is a fine violinist, and these are solid performances, although the orchestra is rather over-balanced on the recording. But sad as it may be, this disc will most likely get lost in the shuffle — as it deserves to, unless it is budget-priced — because of some real marketing and programming blunders. The point is this: Who or what is the presumed market for a 45-minute CD featuring a low-visibility soloist playing two standard concertos? Surely these questions must occur to someone involved with the production. The only explanation I can offer is that someone whose ego has interfered with his reality-testing thinks that Meyers’ playing is so great that people will seek out this parsimoniously filled disc in favor of those featuring much more celebrated artists. But it isn’t. However — and this is the part that saddens me  if she had included, along with the Barber, two — not one — of never-recorded concertos mentioned at the end of this review, there would be a whole constituency of listeners clamoring for it. So, the result is a lost opportunity for a perfectly respectable violinist and one more superfluous CD.

The Korngold Concerto is a sensible pairing for the Barber, as it is not overly familiar and will appeal to many of the same listeners. Actually, the two concertos provide an interesting comparison. They were composed within five years of each other, and both are works in which the melodic element is predominant. Yet their musical effect is quite different: The Barber is a more psychologically intimate work, ringing truer as a genuine personal expression. The Korngold gives the impression — as does most of his music — of having as its chief aim simply to ingratiate, with all the manipulativeness and cloying insincerity the word implies. By contrast, Barber’s temperament emerges as far more refined and aristocratic. I know that one can point to Barber’s having curried favor with the upper crust, and to the environment in which Korngold was nurtured as a true musical aristocracy, in which the utmost refinement was cultivated. That’s what makes this interesting. But I am making a musical comparison, not a biographical or moral one. For some reason or other, Korngold capitalized on his prodigious facility — he composed with an effortlessness that Barber could only have envied — as a means of counterfeiting real artistic expression, and, as a result, except for a couple of the operas, his works do not have the stature of which he would seem to have been capable. Nevertheless, I should add that, taken purely as confection, Korngold’s Concerto can be fun to hear once a decade or so.

The suite of incidental music from Much Ado About Nothing was written in 1920, about the time of Die Tode Stadt — my favorite Korngold work. Presented here in a version for violin and piano, the suite is pretty inconsequential stuff, although those who love Korngold will find the movement called “Scene in the Garden” to be just what they’re looking for.

Gil Shaham is a young Israeli violinist, still in his early twenties, and the latest beneficiary of the industry’s mega-hype, so that he already enjoys wide name-recognition. But I must admit that his playing here is extraordinary. He draws as much drama as possible from the essentially lyrical Barber — especially from the first movement, so that the poignant reflectiveness of second creates a bit of contrast. Though not recorded as extensively as the Barber, the Korngold Concerto has also had its share of distinguished advocates. Jascha Heifetz gave the premiere in 1947, and recorded it several years later.  His rendition is, literally, incomparable. The next recording of significance was Itzhak Perlman’s glib, slick, and typically sterile 1981 reading with the Pittsburgh Symphony, conducted by Andre Previn, who leads the work here. Shaham shares Perlman’s cosmetic qualities, but offers more. His tone is rich, warm, and smooth as velvet, his intonation is razor-sharp, and technical challenges are tossed off with ease. But there is also an underlying intensity of conviction that Perlman so often lacks. Both these concertos are ideally suited to Shaham’s gifts — how he would handle the Schoenberg Concerto I do not know. The sound quality of this recording, featuring Deutsche Grammophon’s highly touted “4D” process, offers a vividness that is quite stupendous. That additional factor makes this disc the clear preference for both concertos.

P.S. Yesterday afternoon while driving in the car, I happened to tune in the local commercial classical station, when the self-important host on duty introduced the Barber Violin Concerto with the words, “This is one of the two great American violin concertos, the other, of course, being the Bernstein Serenade.” While I admire both these works, what never fails to infuriate me about these pseudo-cognoscenti who serve as the gate-keepers of the classical music business is their presumption that all the contenders have had their day and that the jury has delivered its verdict to those in the know. (Of course, this guy is so “in the know” that a few minutes later he pronounced Dominick Argento’s name with an aspirated g, as if he were Spanish.) Anyway, has the hypothetical jury weighed in the balance Vittorio Giannini’s Violin Concerto, from the same period as the Barber and Korngold? Or the Second Violin Concerto of Paul Creston, championed by Michael Rabin? Or the beautiful Violin Concerto of Nicolas Flagello, as brimful of soulful lyricism as the Barber, but never played even once’?! And, what about William Schuman’s Violin Concerto (the only one of these works that has been recorded)? — it may not be a melodious work, but it is a brilliant and powerful statement. As Fanfare readers know so well, the scope of the repertoire is far beyond the ken of most of the professional musical establishment.