Classical Album Reviews: “Strangers in PARadISe,” Camille Saint-Saëns’ Orchestral Works, and Berlioz’s “Symphonie fantastique”

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Diana Tishchenko’s a violinist well worth keeping an eye on; Jun Märkl leads the MSO in brisk, shapely readings of pieces by Saint-Saëns; Françoix-Xavier Roth and his period-instrument ensemble Les Siecles come up with some winning Berlioz.

Violinist Diana Tishchenko — a great debut, superbly conceived and executed.

Violinist Diana Tishchenko’s new album, Strangers in PARadISe, has a title that might be a hair cleverer than needed. But it’s backed up by playing of such fire and conviction – as well as original programming – that no one will likely care.

Indeed, Tishchenko proves herself a top-tier fiddler on this disc. Her technique is (as expected) faultless. But she exhibits a strong sense of musical character, as well as a terrific command of instrumental color and a striking ability to balance directly expressive lines with some of the knottiest early-20th-century writing out there.

Her account of Maurice Ravel’s Violin Sonata, for instance, is unfailingly lyrical and characterful. The light, wispy touch with which Tishchenko plays the first movement’s opening is, at once, perfectly free yet rhythmically exact.

What’s more, the balances she achieves with her pianist, Zoltán Fejérvári, are never less than ideal: all of the Sonata’s contrapuntal textures come across with breathtaking clarity. Certainly, Fejérvári is Tishchenko’s interpretive equal, providing a wonderfully shaded account of the Ravel’s keyboard part. Together, they turn in a spunky, seductive take on the central “Blues” movement and an ecstatic, rhythmically taut reading of the “Moto Perpetuo” finale that all but brings the house down.

Their other two selections – George Enescu’s Violin Sonata no. 3 and Sergei Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata no. 1 – offer similar thrills.

The pair give a soulful, rhapsodic interpretation of the former’s florid, folk-music-infused first movement. The second, with its delicate mix of quintuplet piano pedal points and artificial harmonic violin lines, simply floats. And the dancing finale comes across with zest.

In Prokofiev’s note-spinning First Sonata, Tishchenko and Fejérvári play the opening movement with brooding intensity, while the slashing figures of the second are executed with savage fury. The third’s swooning lyricism sings tartly and the vigorous last movement’s final gesture proves compellingly enigmatic.

Between those two sonatas comes Tishchenko’s torrid, passionate performance of Eugène Ysaÿe’s unaccompanied Sonata no. 3.

In a word, it’s a great debut: superbly conceived and executed. With playing and programming like this, Tishchenko’s a violinist well worth keeping an eye on.

The Malmö Symphony Orchestra’s (MSO) new recording of overtures and excerpts from theater music by Camille Saint-Saëns picks up where the ensemble’s traversal of the composer’s complete symphonies left off, which is to say with playing of spirit and color.

Its biggest number is the ballet from Saint-Saëns’ late-1880s opera Ascanio. Full of echoes of Renaissance music, this is a vivid score, full of lovely melodic touches and some conspicuously fine writing for solo flute.

Conductor Jun Märkl and the MSO shape the latter episodes (in, respectively, the “Scene entre l’Amour et Psyché” and the “Variations de l’Amour”) with supple warmth. Brash energy marks the shifting major/minor progressions of the “Introduction,” the “Bacchus et les Bacchantes” (with its echoes of Samson et Delila) brims with excitement, and the final waltz is free and jaunty.

The remainder of the album provides an overview of Saint-Saëns’s long career.

Its earliest and latest selections, chronologically, prove the most derivative. The 1854 Overture d’un opéra-comique inachevé ticks off all the formal and textural boxes but its shallow materials outstay their welcome by a couple of minutes. Similarly, the 1901 Les Barbares prologue opens with some appealingly dark Wagnerian textures but meanders to its finish a quarter-hour later. And the overture and Act 4 prelude to 1902’s Andromaque recall Schumann more than Saint-Saëns with their stormy, sometimes murky textures.

On the flip side, the overtures to La Jota aragonese (1880) and La princesse jaune (1872) showcase Saint-Saëns at his best: fresh, exotic, colorful, and brilliant.

Throughout, Märkl leads the MSO in brisk, shapely readings of these pieces. The latter two overtures and Andromaque prelude leave the biggest impression: the overtures played with panache and the prelude building to a stirringly passionate climax. Taken together with the Ascanio divertissement, they carry the day.

Since the late-1990s, Michael Tilson Thomas’s recording of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique with the San Francisco Symphony has been my benchmark for the piece. It still is.

But Françoix-Xavier Roth’s new account of this 19th-century icon is its equal in just about every way: only in the finale are the manic energy and brisker tempos of MTT’s reading clearly superior. Then, again, the bells used in Roth’s “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath” come from La Côte-Saint-André, Berlioz’s hometown. Maybe that evens things out?

At any rate, Roth and his period-instrument ensemble, Les Siecles, have the full measure of this famous music. Theirs is as texturally transparent, stylistically assured, and emotionally engaged a performance as they come. The first movement’s “Rêveries” glows. The waltz drives with tempestuous energy. Berlioz’s evocative gestures in the central “Scène aux champs” – the spatial dialogue between English horn and oboe, the rumbles of thunder at the end – speak powerfully, but Roth and his band also pay heed to the structural invention of the music, too: the idée-fixe’s appearance at the movement’s apex is treated with brilliant subtlety.

While, like MTT (actually nearly everyone who conducts the Symphonie these days), Roth takes Berlioz’s nonsensical repeat of the “Marche au supplice’s” exposition, there’s a delirious swagger to the movement’s braying, brassy climaxes. And, if the “Witches’ Sabbath” feels a mite held back at times, it’s introductory section is bone-chilling and the coda roars wildly.

Rounding out the album is, for my money, the best recording of Berlioz’s Les francs-juges Overture since Roger Norrington’s some quarter-century ago. Yes, Roth slows things down just before the very end, inexplicably robbing the music of its momentum just when that alone might carry things – exhilaratingly – across the finish line. But, unlike virtually all the other recent recordings of this marvelously fresh and tuneful score (from Andrew Davis, Colin Davis, and Andrew Litton, among others), Roth has the good sense to keep things moving with spry lucidity up to that point.

By just about any measure, then, this is some winning Berlioz.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

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