Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E minor; Symphony No. 3 (Scottish); The Hebrides Overture

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COMPOSERS: Mendelssohn
LABELS: Linn
WORKS: Violin Concerto in E minor; Symphony No. 3 (Scottish); The Hebrides Overture
PERFORMER: Scottish CO/Joseph Swensen (violin)
CATALOGUE NO: CKD 205
The Scottish Chamber Orchestra plays Scottish music by Mendelssohn on this release, but it is not so much the nationality of the ensemble as its size that stamps these performances most indelibly. Bright, lean sonorities, clear textures and relative prominence of winds and brass create distinctive sonic materials from which conductor Joseph Swensen draws spirited, fully engaged music-making.

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Surely the most stimulating performance on the disc is that of the Violin Concerto. I’ve never heard the solo part realised quite so spontaneously, nor with such a richly varied palette of expressive devices. Swensen meets the piece’s demands, but even so takes technical chances in pursuing expressive ideals. Sometimes the results border on the self-indulgent, but more often they refresh and enlighten, although for a benchmark version I ultimately prefer Kyung-Wha Chung’s imaginative but more focused account. As recorded, Swensen’s tone is not always evenly caught – perhaps he sways as he plays, making it difficult for the microphone to capture a consistent sonic image. Listeners who can tolerate the variable impact of the violin (and Swensen’s somewhat wayward approach) in the opening solo will find nothing more troubling – and much that is more successful – in the remainder of the work.

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Swensen’s conducting in the symphonic works is not as singular as his violin-playing, but he achieves vivid, taut and sleek performances. Peter Maag’s 1960 LSO recording of the Symphony remains unrivalled for its impassioned, lovingly moulded phrasing and surging sonorities, but listeners who prefer the sound of a chamber orchestra in this music will surely find Swensen and the SCO persuasive. David Breckbill