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Recording of the Week, Sibelius and Prokofiev Violin Concertos from Janine Jansen & Klaus Mäkelä

Sibelius & Prokofiev Violin Concertos/Jansen, Oslo Philharmonic, MäkeläSilence is the canvas on which music is created, and in his violin concerto Sibelius uses it to capture the attention of the listener with the most fragile of openings, setting the stage for one of the most popular of violin concertos.

It sits between his second and third symphonies, sharing their use of the full timbral resources of the orchestra, and has remained a central work in the violin concerto repertoire since, having been recorded by most of the top violinists. And so, Janine Jansen and Klaus Mäkelä enter a competitive landscape, in the former’s first concerto recording for nine years, only two years after the release of Mäkelä’s acclaimed survey of the Sibelius symphonies.

I was gripped from the very opening, and over the course of just a few bars Jansen draws myriad colours from the Shumsky-Rode Stradivarius (1715), making it speak from the iciness of those first notes to the early signs of the intensity that is to come. Jansen’s relationship with the Sibelius has had plenty of opportunity to mature, through performances with several conductors, including Paavo Järvi and Christoph Eschenbach, and this is very apparent. Her playing communicates on every level, in the intensity of the first movement, the almost hymn-like nature and subsequent growth of the second movement and the primal, polonaise-like folk dance of the final movement.

Her technical prowess is such that the string crossings, harmonics, position changes and bowing are so within her command that the music flourishes. Her vibrato varies widely, always used sensitively and never overdone as in some recordings of this repertoire, and the relationship between soloist and orchestra is best described as organic, with Mäkelä’s affinity for the composer clearly in evidence.

Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1 was premiered in 1923, with Serge Koussevitsky conducting. There’s a parallel with the Sibelius in the sotto voce opening of the first movement, though the sound here is warmer, the violin quietly stating its presence above shimmering upper strings before the clarinet and flute gently announce themselves. Again, I was enchanted by Jansen’s control and the almost tangible synergy between her and the orchestra, leaving no doubt that she and Mäkelä have developed a strong partnership.

Such understanding is crucial in this work, where the melodic material throughout all three movements is shared between soloist and orchestra, and in which the orchestral colours are often painted gently but confidently, with the strings, woodwind and harp as the main perpetrators. Prokofiev doesn’t spotlight the solo violin as much as Sibelius does, and Jansen and Mäkelä achieve just the right balance.

The second movement rondo sounds initially like a relatively delicate dance, but Prokofiev’s adventurous side soon comes through, and Jansen demonstrates complete mastery of the bowing techniques the music demands, and the constant switching between arco and pizzicato. The angular, even slightly demonic, quality to the writing as the movement progresses benefits from the rock-solid partnership between soloist, orchestra and conductor, and this is highlighted even more in the third movement, where the violin part has long phrases which Jansen shapes beautifully whilst leaving space for the bassoon, oboe and clarinet writing to be part of the expressive whole.

Prokofiev’s orchestration here is very effective, passing the underlying meter between orchestral and solo parts whilst giving the melodic ideas room to soar, benefitting from the range of timbres offered by the modestly sized orchestra. The ethereal ending, using upper strings, flute, harp and the solo violin, is sensitively handled, feeling like a return to the beginning after a journey full of character and colour.

The digital download version of this release has a bonus; ‘Water Drops’, by Sibelius. It’s unaccompanied, played by Jansen with Mäkelä (cello),  less than a minute long and completely pizzicato. As a closing trinket it is smile-inducing, such that I’m disappointed it wasn’t included on the CD.

In conclusion, this is an unreserved recommendation from me, and certainly a release that I will be adding to my own collection despite already having several recordings of both concertos. If you’re new to this music, you couldn’t hope for a better introduction, and if you’re familiar with it, you will find new joy in these top-drawer interpretations.

Janine Jansen (violin), Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, Klaus Mäkelä

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC