Saturday, July 13, 2024

Sibelius & Prokofiev, Violin Concertos, Janine Jansen, Klaus Mäkelä, Oslo Philharmonic

Music Review Sibelius Sibelius & Prokofiev, Violin Concertos, Janine Jansen, Klaus Mäkelä / Oslo Philharmonic / Decca

Summary: This release features the exceptional return of Dutch violinist Janine Jansen, with a standout performance of the Sibelius Violin Concerto. Conductor Klaus Mäkelä adds depth with his detailed orchestral palette. The Prokofiev Concerto also shines, capturing its dreamy and elusive qualities, making this recording a must-listen for enthusiasts of this repertoire.

This release has garnered significant attention for several reasons. Firstly, it marks the much-anticipated return of the truly remarkable Dutch violinist, Janine Jansen, to the recording studio after a long hiatus. Secondly, it features the wunderkind conductor Klaus Mäkelä, whose rising star status in the classical music world has intrigued many. I must confess, his previous Sibelius symphony set left me somewhat unconvinced, which led me to approach this new recording with a fair degree of caution. However, I found myself pleasantly surprised.

Let us begin by turning our attention to the violinist. As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, Jansen is an exceptional talent. Upon hearing her performance of the Sibelius Violin Concerto, I am compelled to elevate her status even further—she belongs to the elite of the finest living violinists. Her performance of the Sibelius reminded me of Mutter with Previn, which is still my favourite recording and my idea of a desert island disc. However, Jansen’s performance in this instance is also exceptional. Take in her heart-stopping vibrato in the first movement from 5:08 onward, or her virtuosity at 7:10, when she plays notes that disappear at 7:29 like a shooting star. The high note at 13:31, rendered on the Shumsky-Rode Stradivarius from 1715, possesses a unique ringing quality that is nothing short of captivating. The hushed pianissimo at 14:38 sends chills down one’s spine, and mere seconds later, the orchestra’s ghostly entrance at 14:43 creates an eerie and haunting effect. Mäkelä’s direction reveals subtle yet significant details, such as the impressive orchestral accelerando he conjures at 15:02 during the closing moments of the first movement. My only reservation is the lack of dramatic contrast and finer details from the orchestra. In the Barenboim recording, the timpani are present throughout the entire first minute of the last movement, and their contribution is crucial. Similarly, Previn (to mention another of my favourite recordings) features some show-stopping tutti outbursts in the outer movements that perfectly complement the desolate nature of the concerto.

The Prokofiev Concerto is an entirely different beast, with its constant tempo fluctuations and erratic mood swings. The orchestra’s strong contribution is evident from the mysterious opening, with the viola tremolos setting the stage. The sognando effect of the solo violin is ideally captured by Jansen, her playing luxuriant and perfectly matched to the character of the work. The otherworldly orchestral moments at 7:35 further enhance the atmosphere. The Scherzo is a showcase of violin pyrotechnics, and Jansen does not disappoint. Although there are moments in both the Scherzo and the first movement that could be performed at a swifter pace, it is important to remember that this is not a race. Jansen’s golden tone requires space to breathe, and her interpretation benefits from this slightly expansive approach. As for the interplay between orchestra and soloist, there couldn’t be a better match: Mäkelä, the Oslo Philharmonic, and Jansen truly excel in the final minutes of the last movement of the Prokofiev, where the sognando qualities and eerie atmosphere are captured with remarkable finesse. Indeed, the interplay between the clarinet, oboe, and Jansen’s silky vibrato in these closing moments is nothing short of magical.

As commendable as the Prokofiev is in this release, the true highlight for me remains the Sibelius Concerto. It has been quite some time since I felt such excitement about violin playing in a performance. Among recent recordings, the Lisa Batiashvili/Barenboim collaboration stands out. Looking further back, the stellar Mutter/Previn remains highly recommended, along with the virtuosic and expressive Heifetz/Hendl and Ferras/Karajan recordings.

In conclusion, this is an exceptional release that deserves the attention it has received. If you enjoy playing that combines sheer virtuosity with a bold, romantic style brimming with emotion, this recording will undoubtedly delight you. While I could have wished for a bit more contrast from the orchestra in the Sibelius, or the Scherzo of the Prokofiev, Mäkelä’s symphonic approach works exceptionally well. As an orchestral highlight, listen to the last movement of the Sibelius Concerto, where Mäkelä provides a dark-hued orchestral palette, notably from 2:24 to 2:28, or the beginning of the same movement with its pulsating momentum. Additionally, in the Prokofiev, all the dreamy and elusive qualities are imaginatively captured, making this release a must-listen for enthusiasts of this repertoire.

On a High Note

  • Janine Jansen’s triumphant return to the recording studio after a long hiatus
  • Exceptional performance by Jansen in the Sibelius Violin Concerto, elevating her status among the finest living violinists
  • Mäkelä’s direction reveals subtle details

Room for Variation

  • A desire for a slightly more dramatic contrast from the conductor and orchestra in the Sibelius concerto


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