Violin Concerto No. 1
Adagio Appassionato
Violin Concerto
Yankee Doodle (Souvenir d’Amérique)

Esther Yoo            Violin
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Vasily Petrenko       Conductor

Deutsche Grammophon DG40303
Full Price

The Review

What a clever piece of programming this is! The Bruch and the Barber might seem as if they come from different worlds – the late Romantic European versus the anguished American from the Second World War – but in fact they explore similar territory and they contain some of the most heart-rending music ever written for violin and orchestra. There are many recordings of both but having them together on disc is a true delight

So too is Esther Yoo’s playing. She has immaculate control of her instrument, of course (that has been known foe years) but she also knows how to shape this music so that it does not get lost in its own lusciousness. She can hold back, let the orchestra make the running, before coming back into the tapestry as the guide but by no means the only voice in the story. Her tempi are superbly judged. The wrenching beauty of Bruch’s slow movement can become cloying if it languishes, just as the transition into the finale can be a rude awakening, but she and Petrenko find a judicious middle way that keeps the concerto a unified whole. Where there is agony in the Adagio, there is a brave and determined resolution in what follows.

The reason for putting the fabulous single movement ten minutes of the Adagio Appassionato, written for Brahms’ great champion Joseph Joachim, next on the disc is not only that it contrasts two great slow movements by Bruch, it also bridges brilliantly to the opening of Samuel Barber’s concerto. He almost picks up where Bruch leaves off; one of those juxtapositions that only a violinist who knows both so well would think of but that is so obvious once you hear it.

And oh, this performance of the Barber is really something special. Sometimes players can want to stress Barber’s mid-century credentials, his closeness to Copland and Bernstein and both are indeed there in the music. But their works closest to Barber’s are, in Copland’s case, the clarinet concerto, and Bernstein’s Serenade after Plato’s Symposium which were written well after Barber’s concerto. If there is influence, it is the other way round. In Barber the only real nod to modernity is the inclusion of a piano in the orchestral texture. For the rest there is just the glorification of the ability of the violin to sing. The disc finishes with Vieuxtemps’s gently hilarious take on Yankee Doodle Dandy – five minutes in which one half expects Donald Duck to quack from the centre of the band – a nice antidote to all the romance.

This is a brilliant recording too. It is the first made by the RPO with Vasily Petrenko as their Principal Conductor and they clearly bring out the best in each other. The wind solos that open the slow movement of the Barber are right out of the top drawer and the way Yoo slides in after them is perfection. Producer Christopher Alder and engineer Jonathan Stokes have done a splendid job, getting the balance between soloist and orchestra just right. It is not the balance of the concert hall (the violin is just forward of that) but it works, whether in the clean acoustic of Henry Wood Hall for the Bruch or the more generous surroundings of Watford Coliseum, a favourite venue for recording London’s orchestras for decades, in the Barber. This, I suspect, is going to be a version of both concertos I reach for a lot, though I have a very soft spot for Lydia Mordkovich’s 1989 reading of the Bruch on Chandos with Neeme Järvi and the LSO as well. Hard to pick and I’m glad I don’t have to.