Violinist Isabelle Faust applies a light, even spectral tone to the famous melody of the first movement of Felix Mendelssohn’s violin concerto. It’s an approach that demands complete confidence, which she displays throughout the work on a new Harmonia Mundi recording that also includes the composer’s unusual Symphony No. 5 (“Reformation”) and his B minor “Hebrides” concert overture.
The first movement of the violin concerto is one of the most exciting pieces in all the violin-and-orchestra literature. The second movement stands as one of the most romantic and the third is a marvel of ebullience. Altogether it’s one of those works that pose an irresistible challenge to every great violin soloist. When conductor Pablo Heras-Casado leads the Freiburger Barockorchester to thunderous fortes, Faust embroiders the collective sound as if with silver thread. In the first-movement cadenza she glides up to some of the highest notes with an exquisite touch of portamento. (The liner notes point out that sliding along the strings was much more common in Mendelssohn’s time.)
I’ve read that Stradivarius instruments like the 1704 “Sleeping Beauty” violin Faust plays are nearing the end of their playable lives. I don’t know if there’s been a fall-off in tone for this one. There are times when the violin’s middle register sounds thin, but that may be by choice. As part of her research, Faust went back to the earliest recording of the work, by Joseph Joachim, to determine the bowing techniques of the time. She does produce marvelous contrasts, as when she leans in forcefully to the second movement’s coda (which really serves as an introduction to the sprightly third movement) right after the gossamer melodies that precede it. It’s clear in every passage that she has the full measure of “Sleeping Beauty” at her fingertips.
Leaning in to appreciate her touch is what Faust asks us to do in all three movements on this recording, very much the way we do in a concert hall when a single musician must express her soul with a full orchestra behind her. What we hear on this recording is a virtuoso who makes it all sound easy, who draws deeply felt emotion and faery-dust thrills from her instrument with a feeling of effortlessness. The racing conclusion of the third movement is both a tour-de-force of technique and a curtain-call of style.
Heras-Casado takes the orchestra to moving heights in the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5, with its operatic brass fanfares, staccato attacks, lyrical development, and sustained drama. Then the coquettish “Allegro Vivace” and the sober “Andante” offer the requisite contrast under Heras-Casado’s baton. The unusual “Chorale” finale carries just the devotional aura the composer intended, though the orchestra brings out the symphonic accents and crescendos a bit less decisively than it might have. It’s a strangely schizophrenic movement any way you look at it, and this is certainly an enjoyable rendition.
Mendelssohn composed the concert overture “The Hebrides” after a visit to Scotland, and the Barockorchester brings to it a mix of stormy seascape and windswept barrenness. I was not entirely surprised to read in the program notes that even his vitriolic enemy Wagner approved of the piece. Mendelssohn captured a mood more Nordic than Alpine or Mediterranean, which Heras-Casado sees and conveys clearly.
Most impressive, though, is the way he and Faust see eye-to-eye in the violin concerto. That recording by itself makes this a worthy addition to anyone’s classical music collection. It’s available now.