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Andrew Achenbach
Gramophone, January 2011

An account of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto that blossoms into something special

Frank Peter Zimmermann’s recent Sony anthology of the Szymanowski and Britten concertos (A/09) was a classy, richly stimulating affair and his new Ondine recording of the Sibelius affords comparable pleasure. Don’t be hoodwinked by Zimmermann’s uncharacteristically mannered opening entry; his partnership with John Storgårds and the Helsinki PO soon blossoms into something special—a reading of simmering intensity, steadfast concentration and dashing technical security.

With his gorgeously ripe tone, easy swagger and intoxicating range of colour, Zimmermann is every inch the master. Storgårds, too, conducts with alert understanding: those punchy tuttis in the first movement where Sibelius lets the orchestra off the leash are handled with watchful authority (the brass contribution is especially distinguished). In the central Adagio di molto, these performers allow themselves plenty of time and expressive leeway—and how tenderly Zimmermann caresses those achingly intimate sighs from four bars before fig 1 (2’40”) and again, towards the close, from four after fig 4 (6’37”). The finale, by contrast, is taken at a quite a lick, but happily there’s no loss in either rhythmic acuity or sure-footed composure. From a host of felicities I can’t resist mentioning that delicious episode from 14 after fig 8 (4’36”), where the solo violin’s harmonics whistle out cheekily over the nimbly dancing orchestra.

As for the couplings, Storgårds secures as compelling a rendering of The Bard as I can ever recall, his strict observance of note values at fig G (5’13”) injecting the necessary spark. He also has the measure of The Wood Nymph, a moody, somewhat unwieldy symphonic ballad from 1895, programmed by the composer four years later alongside the Helsinki world premiere of his First Symphony, and whose glowering apotheosis boasts a cello-led idea that Sibelius fruitfully reworked for Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of the Island (the first of the Four Legends, Op 22).

Just occasionally, I felt the woodwind were balanced a little too closely for comfort; otherwise, the sound is pretty much state0of-the-art. Make no mistake: this is a thoroughly recommendable release.

John P McKelvey
American Record Guide, January 2011

This performance is lightly expressed, fairly quick, and, though not lacking in expression, avoids romantic excesses. The orchestral accompaniment is extremely supportive and very well played. The Bard is…a well-shaped and interesting piece…Storgard’s…harp solos most impressive. The Wood Nymph…is well played and recorded and an interesting example of Sibelius’s earlier style. As a whole, I found a lot to enjoy and little to dislike in this well-played and impressively recorded and produced entry.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

Doyle Armbrust
Time Out Chicago, December 2010

Why another take on the Sibelius? The first 20 measures should provide the undeniable answer.

Rob Barnett
MusicWeb International, November 2010

Ondine and these artists start off with a considerable edge. The recording technology has produced stunning results in the shape of 24 bit DXD (Digital Extreme Definition). It’s the aural equivalent of high definition TV. Add to this a recording of the Violin Concerto that is a very strong entrant in stakes that are already crowdedly thronged. It jostles its way to near the front rank. The Concerto has been blessed over the years. Zimmermann gives one of those careful yet spontaneously vibrant readings which I associate with Stokowski on a good day. The reading of this workforce simply holds the attention when its warhorse credentials will tempt many into a sort of synthesised competence. With Zimmermann emphases, slurs and caesurae are in place and such eloquent punctilious attention adds a natural fresh quality. I have always regarded The Bard as a companion to Luonnotar and the Fourth Symphony. Kamu (DG Eloquence) stands at the other pole from Storgårds who locates himself in the mainstream. This reading featuring the harpist Anni Kuusimäki is pristine, sparse and dignified. It conjures a dreamy vision of wandering harpers of yore. There is nothing Gallic or voluptuary about this. Also impressive is the way the work emerges from silence—all works do this but there is something specially poised about this recording. The tonal allure is very impressive. We have long left behind the sort of raw deckle-edged treble for which early CDs were condemned. As for The Wood Nymph it is good to see it building a history on disc. It’s from the same era as the Lemminkainen poems and En Saga. It’s a big, discursive and loosely structured piece with more in common with En Saga than with the Lemminkainen pieces. Its origins can be traced to a poem by Viktor Rydberg which also gave birth to a song and a melodrama by Sibelius.

The WSCL Blog, October 2010

Sibelius’ intense and passionate contribution to the violin concerto repertoire, coupled with two lesser-known works—The Bard (featuring a prominent part for harp, of course) and The Wood Nymph.

James Manheim, October 2010

There’s no shortage of recordings of the Sibelius Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47, but the great virtuosi of the middle 20th century had a lot to say about the work, and the flood of performances has slowed somewhat. Several modern releases pair the concerto with modernist works, and a potential attraction of this Finnish release is that the accompanying orchestral pieces are, instead, by Sibelius himself, and relative rarities. They make an attractive pair; The Bard, Op. 64, is a rather mystical yet tightly knit tone poem whose extramusical inspiration has remained vague, while The Wood Nymph, Op. 15, from 1895, is in Sibelius’ early and more obvious mode, with an episodic quality and touches of both Dvorak and Wagner. That work is a bit diffuse, but either piece could enliven an orchestral concert. The violin concerto is given a brisk, generally dry, and technically precise performance by Frank Peter Zimmermann, reminiscent in places of Jascha Heifetz’s durable reading. Its most noticeable feature is the quick pace of the finale, which Zimmermann executes with impressive control. The booklet notes by Vesa Sirén, in English and Finnish, refer to the performance tradition that has led most violinists to take this movement more slowly (and critic Donald Francis Tovey to call it “a polonaise for polar bears”); the case for Zimmermann’s way of playing it is persuasive, and so is the performance. Top-notch engineering from the Ondine label, with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra playing in familiar confines at the city’s Finlandia Hall, makes a contribution to a strong contender for anyone considering recordings of the Sibelius violin concerto.

Phil Muse
Audio Video Club of Atlanta, October 2010

On the Ondine label from Finland, violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann does a more than commendable job with Jean Sibelius’ musically muscular Violin Concerto in D Minor, Op. 47, and the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra under chief conductor John Storgårds live up to their proud century old Sibelius tradition in lending Zimmermann yeoman support and in their accounts of two much neglected tone poems.

Sibelius’ Violin Concerto is easily the most rhythmically and musically dense work of its kind in the 20th century. It is also the most melodically rich. Consequently, there are many opportunities for Zimmermann to make telling points here with his lean, incisive tone, and he takes advantage of them all. These include the cadenzalike treatment of the main theme in the opening Allegro moderato, the virtuosic passages in the same movement where the violinist has to maintain a trill with the first and second fingers while developing a deeply moving line on the nextlower string, the heartmelting melody of the Adagio and the superb diminuendo at its end, and the fast octave double stops in the formidable finale.

While Zimmermann cultivates a leaner, more “modern” tone in this work than older listeners may be accustomed to hearing in their treasured 1959 recording by Jascha Heiftez, he does something very much in the Heiftez vein in opting for an opening tempo of 116 in the finale, an incredibly energetic display for both soloist and orchestra that musicologist Donald Francis Tovey famously termed a “polonaise for polar bears.” That bracing tempo would have won the approval of Sibelius himself, who preferred it over slower less risktaking approaches because it brought out “das Virtuose.” There’s plenty of that here.

Like Stravinsky, Sibelius got more concise, less intuitive and more precompositional in his technique toward the end of his career, and consequently lost his audience. His tone poem The Bard (1913) was an early example of this tendency. The 8 minute work is quiet, intimate and finely detailed, philosophical in mood rather than dramatic. Significantly, “nothing happens,” all of which encouraged Sibelius’ biographer Erik Tawastjerna to observe that he “had a touch of Anon Webern in him” (something which the vast legions of Webern admirers will find inspiring).

We are on more familiar ground, as far as the majority of rapid Sibelians are concerned, in The Wood Nymph, Op. 15, which concerns a mortal who falls in love with said woodland spirit and lives to regret it. As performed with exceptional gusto (and virtuose) by Storgårds and the Helsinki, this 24-minute work has the incredibly robust and not so discreetly erotic power that listeners will associate with the composer of the Four Legends and Finlandia.

David Hurwitz, August 2010

Frank Peter Zimmermann offers a fresh and exciting view of the Violin Concerto, less sentimental than some, with swift tempos, and in particular a dazzlingly quick finale. His phrasing is sometimes a touch angular, particularly in the first movement, and this usually works well, putting an arresting slant on tunes we feel we’ve heard a million times before. Only the very opening misfires a bit: yes, it’s marked mezzo-forte, but it’s also marked “dolce ed espressivo”, and Zimmermann’s somewhat wiry tone is neither. But as soon as the performance settles down, about a minute in, it’s smooth sailing and very enjoyable listening.

The couplings further elevate the claims of this release on your purse. Neither work is very well known. The Bard, contemporaneous with the Fourth Symphony, is one of Sibelius’ most elusive tone poems: beautiful and sad, with its elegiac harp solo and climactic brass calls. The Wood Nymph has had only one previous recording, an excellent one from Vänska and the Lahti Symphony. The newcomer uses the recently published critical edition—the work was neither revised nor printed in Sibelius’ lifetime, though it’s a vintage piece from the same period as En Saga, to which it bears some resemblance. I secured a copy of the manuscript while working on my Sibelius book, and it’s an absolute mess as Sibelius left it. Hopefully publication of a clean text will allow the piece to become as popular as it deserves to be.

John Storgards, now music director of the Helsinki Philharmonic, conducts all of this music with unaffected mastery. It goes without saying that the orchestra knows the music (although The Wood Nymph remains a novelty), but they play superbly nonetheless. Like his predecessor, Leif Segerstam, Storgards is himself a violinist, and few composers benefit more from having a string player on the podium—not so much for the tunes, but in getting the sections to articulate those typically Sibelian, “cross-hatched” accompaniments that propel the music forward and energize its textures. The engineering is generally excellent, particularly in the concerto, although a touch dry in the bass. This one’s a keeper.

Jean-Yves Duperron
Classical Music Sentinel, August 2010

At the time when this wonderful Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47 was written, Jean Sibelius (1865–1957) was, according to biographical accounts, going through some personal emotional turmoil and alcohol abuse. Add to that the many feverish mood swings he went through struggling with the abundance of musical material spinning in his head, and it’s surprising he finished it. I suppose the fact that he himself had dreamed of becoming a violin virtuoso helped in the process.

Like a lone voice in the wilderness, the violin itself begins the concerto (Sibelius believed it was boring to watch the soloist standing there waiting for his or her entrance, and I myself have always thought that it must actually be embarrassing for the violinist to be standing there, exposed, doing nothing, until its time to play) and Frank Peter Zimmermann immediately casts a darkish tone to the work with a probing line and emotionally rich and sombre violin sound. Given the fact that Sibelius was primarily a symphonist, the orchestra’s role in this concerto is just as important as the soloist’s and sometimes seems to take over in the early stages of the first movement, but at the 6:35 mark the violin returns with anguished cries of despair projected with the utmost power and beauty of tone in the high notes by Zimmermann. I’ve rarely heard this done so well. In the following Adagio di molto movement, Zimmermann’s dark and burnished tone makes his instrument sound more like a viola which suits the music perfectly as it helps emphasize its deep melancholy. The whole movement is beautifully captured by both the orchestra and the soloist in this recording, and even more so at the end when Zimmermann manages to produce an almost sobbing effect from his violin. The final movement takes off like a tall ship with full sails catching the wind. Sibelius had made it quite clear that this movement was to be played at the metronome marking of 108–116, if the virtuoso character within it was to reveal itself, and in this recording, the opening tempo is exactly 116. Others have recorded it slower which robs the music of its intended character. I myself find that the middle section’s rhythm sounds Spanish to me. Somewhat like a flamenco dancer caught up in a very passionate moment. All of this passion and energy is very well projected by Frank Peter Zimmermann and conductor John Storgards. The final few bars are almost on fire. This is Zimmermann’s first recording for Ondine. Hopefully it’s not the last.

The CD also includes two symphonic poems. The Bard, Op. 64 and The Wood Nymph (Skogsraet), Op. 15. Neither are very well known or have seen many recordings. According to the booklet notes, The Bard was composed when Sibelius was recovering from throat surgery, and was abstaining from alcohol and smoking cigars, and concentrating on his internal voices. It is a beautiful work with many inspired harp passages, and very well performed in this recording. The Wood Nymph, at 24 minutes, is almost as long as the violin concerto, and just as dramatic. Although a bit repetitive at times, it definitely has a Wagnerian scope to it, all the more emphasized by fine brass choir writing. After an impressive brass laden opening, and segments depicting wind rushing through the woods, its central section is a marvel of rich cello melodies until the march motif returns, this time infused with a sense of tragedy, and inexorably crescendos and builds in tension until the very end. Again, all of this drama and orchestral colors very well captured by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, which, after all, is the orchestra that premiered these works 100 years ago under Sibelius himself.

The Ondine recording itself, a 24-bit recording in DXD (Digital eXtreme Definition), is excellent and does a great job at reproducing the full dynamic range of the music and gets the balance between the violin and orchestra just right. There already are many fine interpretations of this iconic violin concerto, and this new recording jumps right up to the top ranks.

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