I wish I had a dollar for every up-and-coming young violinist in recent years who has elected to make his or her recorded concerto debut in the Mendelssohn E minor. Or does it just seem that way?
In any event here are two of the youngest, 21-year-old Joshua Bell and 27-year-old Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, each in the you-know-what. What's more, Bell, like Shlomo Mintz on his debut album of some years back, has paired the Mendelssohn with the Bruch G minor, traditionally its most popular discmate.Otherwise I expect it is the Salerno-Sonnenberg disc that is aimed at the largest audience, namely those myriad viewers who have caught her act on the "Tonight" show or her much-discussed "60 Minutes" profile. Here we have a chance to assess her work minus the visuals (which I gather are considerable) and I have to say the talent is undeniable. I'm just not sure it has been brought to bear on a wholly convincing statement of the music.
Based on advance reports, I expected her to lay it on too thick - big sound, big gestures etc. But in fact her sound as recorded here seems a bit thin, and although she certainly doesn't shy away from the occasional large-scale gesture, they are inconsistently applied.
Witness her Mendelssohn, an unevenly phrased rendition in which a few good ideas are overwhelmed by some very generalized notions about the music. Listen, for example, to the way she telegraphs things like the first-movement cadenza, which here comes across almost like a separate virtuoso showpiece as opposed to a natural extension of what has gone before. Or the unduly stretched Andante, which offers length without continuity, almost as though Leonard Bernstein had taken up the violin.
Again the finale reminds us it is not technique that is getting in the way of this performance. Here the fireworks are real, as though the attention-getting no longer had to be injected. I wish that could be said of the two Saint-Saens encores. But the "Havanaise" tends to be rhythmically wayward and generally uneven in tone and execution and the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso big and often overstated, lacking the silken penetration of Heifetz, Oistrakh or Milstein. Better is the familiar "Meditation" from "Thais," still a mite uneven on phrase endings but possessed of a radiance too often lacking in the other performances.
Thus it is Bell's Mendelssohn that emerges as the more tasteful and mature statement, as well as the more richly recorded. Indeed this is a warmly impassioned performance that plumbs the music's depths without sacrificing continuity, with outstanding support from Marriner. This first-movement cadenza, for example, stands as not only a culmination of what has gone before but a bridge to what follows, namely the recapitulation.
If there is a fault, it is that things don't always brighten up as much as one would like 0 e.g., the finale, which comes across as just a bit heavy in sound and execution. To a lesser extent this is also true of the Bruch, but I find that more than compensated for by the unforced lyricism of the performance as a whole, the slow movement incisively poetic throughout, capped by an unusually persuasive finale. So much so that, as with Laredo's similarly distinguished MCA pairing of these concertos, it is easy to see why it is this one that gets top billing.
Even more persuasive in my view are the Perlman/Previn and Cho-Liang Lin recordings of these pieces (the latter available on two separate CBS issues), followed by those of Mintz and Mutter (both DG). But rest assured, the young Indianan can hold his own even in this exalted company. And at age 21, that ain't bad.