Violinist Carolin Widmann‘s effervescent tone and delicate but assured sensibility imparts an airy buoyancy to the performance of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, which she also directs in their ECM Records recording of Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor and Robert Schumann’s Violin Concerto in D minor.
An elevated spirit is afoot from the haunting first moments of the opening movement of the Mendelssohn, through its lightning triplet violin passages, into the dark grandeur of the first forte orchestral statement, and through the canon-like second theme that flowers into high romance. Widmann’s liquid upper-register tone and resonant lower notes flow together forming a poetic vocabulary in a cadenza of seemingly effortless artistry. When the orchestra returns for the recapitulation it feels like it would be greedy to ask for more.
But Mendelssohn the melodist was incomparably inspired through all three movements of this late work. The famous theme of the second movement seems to drift in on a breeze, the quick-rolling violin figures of the middle section coruscating gently against the orchestra’s rhythms. What I admire most is the crystalline touch of romance Widmann brings to the music without indulging in schmaltz.
The third movement’s sugar-plum fairies fly by with gossamer speed but delicate clarity too. The composer didn’t need to hammer anything home in this final statement; he had already conquered the territory and needed merely to offer a concise statement of mastery, which violinist and orchestra – its winds especially acute here – convey with both technical brilliance and a big sonic smile.
Schumann’s Violin Concerto in D minor is a late work of the troubled composer’s that went unheard until 1937 (and then for purposes of Nazi glorification, in opposition to the work of the “Jew Mendelssohn”). In the first movement the forthright opening theme thunders and the violin wails and shivers its opening motifs before settling into a sequence of rippling, impressionistic arpeggios and leaping intervals. The orchestral passages are dramatic and imagistic like an operatic overture, or what today we might call cinematic.
The movement has many lovely moments, but it’s a harder piece to reckon with than the limpid and much more frequently heard Mendelssohn. It feels somewhat opaque, its focus elusive, both in its aching soft passages and its scarily virtuosic solo flights. Nevertheless Widmann and the ensemble call forth its dense, contrasting beauties with admirable clarity.
The slow movement feels even more impressionistic. Its quietly wandering melodies give rise to a sense that one is peering into a very private space, one from which Schumann could lead us out of only by segueing seamlessly into his twirling dance-finale.
That third movement’s rocketing scales, arpeggios, and leaps make it a showpiece for the nimble-fingered violinist. It’s no wonder this Concerto was at one time considered too difficult to play. Widmann’s dexterity amazes even as her musicality never fails.
In the video below, the violinist presents some valuable perspective on the recording and a number of incisive observations on the music, including: “If you were to hear just these two works, you’d assume that Schumann’s concerto was much later than Mendelssohn’s.” In fact they were written just nine years apart. They do express two very different aspects of Romanticism, and Widmann, who in 2013 was named Artist of the Year at the International Classical Music Awards and in 2014 was awarded the Schneider-Schott Music Prize, brings a powerful enthusiasm to the works that’s evident throughout. The album is out now on ECM Records.