Beethoven & Mendelssohn

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Beethoven & Mendelssohn
LABELS: RCA Red Seal
ALBUM TITLE: Beethoven & Mendelssohn
WORKS: Violin Concertos
PERFORMER: Nikolaj Znaider (violin); Israel PO/Zubin Mehta
CATALOGUE NO: 82876 69217-2
Any young soloist independent-minded enough to record Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with something other than the perennial Bruch gets at least a one-star head start in my book. But Nikolaj Znaider’s performance of the Mendelssohn is special enough on its own terms. In fact I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed this work so much. Znaider has all the winning attributes from a violinistic point of view: superb agility, a persuasively sweet tone when appropriate, but with a fine range of colour sensitively applied. But what persuades me most is how much he seems to identify with this work as a unified, intensely felt Romantic drama. Each change of mood is an event, and yet contrast is never, ever exaggerated. Even the little linking Allegretto non troppo between the slow movement and finale comes across as a touch of poetic genius. And while Znaider’s virtuosity can be exciting, I never felt that he was showing off at the expense of the music. My final impression was of a highly gifted and insightful musician placing his talent at Mendelssohn’s service – which is how it should be, and so rarely is.

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I wish I could be as enthusiastic about the Beethoven, but however high Znaider’s artistry, Mehta gets the Concerto off to a somewhat plodding start. It isn’t particularly slow, but nor is there much real momentum, still less dramatic fire. Znaider only sounds fully himself in the lightly accompanied Larghetto and in Kreisler’s first movement cadenza. Thomas Zehetmair’s period instrument version with Frans Brüggen and the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century still holds the field amongst digital age recordings. But I can’t think of any modern version of the Mendelssohn – not even the intelligently searching Joshua Bell – that impressed me as much on first hearing as Znaider. Stephen Johnson