Elgar, Violin Concerto in B Minor and "Salut d'Amour," Pinchas Zukerman, violin, and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin (RCA Victor Red Seal Classics 09026-61672-2). Elgar, Violin Concerto in B Minor and "Cockaigne" overture, Dong-Suk Kang, violin (in the concerto), and the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Adrian Leaper (Naxos 8.550489).
Zukerman's Elgar Concerto performances and recordings (this is his second) always cause consternation among British critics and aficionados of the composer. That's no mystery. As this record demonstrates, Zukerman plays the B Minor concerto at an almost ridiculously slow tempo, with an over-large sound (unrealistically emphasized by the microphones) and a tendency dwell on details in a sentimental manner. This would -- to judge by Elgar's recordings of his own music -- have infuriated the composer. This performance -- however beautiful its details -- sacrifices the music's sweep.
Dong-Suk Kang's performance is another matter. This young Korean, now in his 30s, is a phenomenal player who's been somewhat lost in the crowded field of other superb Asian players. Kang plays the piece brilliantly, shooting off virtuosic sparks in every direction and capturing a fine balance between the composer's throat-burning emotionalism and reserve. The Polish orchestra, led by the British Leaper, plays the concerto and the overture extremely well. At less than half the price of the Zukerman disc, this is a genuine bargain. Schubert, Symphony No. 3; Schumann, Symphony No. 3; NDR-Sinfonieorchester (North German Radio Symphony Orchestra), Gunter Wand, conductor (RCA Victor Red Seal Classics 09026-61876-2). Schumann Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3; The London Philharmonic, Franz Welser-Most, conductor.
These discs, which cover the same ground in Schumann's Symphony No. 3 (the "Rhenish"), confounded my expectations. Welser-Most, 32, has seemed one of those musicians created in the offices of publicists. His slender, sexually ambiguous good looks seem designed for record covers -- but none of his widely promoted records has impressed me. Wand, 82, is among the last of the central European conductors who came up the old way -- learning their trade in the opera house -- and whose conducting career didn't make it out of the German provinces until he was past 70. I wanted to find the Wand disc competent, even profound, and the one by Welser-Most slick and superficial.
Wand's performances are competent enough (though not particularly well played), but skim the surface. On the other hand, if Welser-Most's forthcoming performances of the remaining two Schumann symphonies are as good as these, his set will be the best since those of Karajan and Sawallisch more than 20 years ago.
The first movement of the "Rhenish" is among the most difficult to negotiate in the entire repertoire. It's the single greatest piece of symphonic music by the composer -- the only one that in its personal feeling, sweep and narrative conviction rivals his best piano pieces. But with perhaps only five exceptions, no conductor seems able to sustain the movement's momentum, and it almost always falls flat. The young Austrian leads this movement with breadth, nobility and tonal splendor. His tempo is unusually slow -- as slow as that of Giulini -- but never sounds that way. Welser-Most's subtle tempo adjustments -- holding back slightly here, pressing forward with agitation there -- sustain the momentum and supply a perpetually singing line. The rest of the symphony is performed with lightness, humor and dignity. In the Symphony No. 2, Welser-Most does not attempt to seek out Schumann's psychological depth charges -- particularly those in the tormented, almost psychotic third movement. But it is a pleasure to listen to a young musician who does not feel compelled to make a profound statement, and can make music in a manner so relaxed and beautiful.