JEAN SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Violin Concerto in D minor, op.47Sir EDWARD ELGAR (1857-1934)
Violin Concerto in B minor op.61*DONG-SUK KANG violin
Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra · Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra*
conducted by Adrian Leaper

NAXOS 8.553233
[77:10] budget-price

by Isaac Koh

Here we have a disc of two popular violin concertos from the beginning of the twentieth century. That which may appear to be an unusual coupling initially actually becomes appropriate upon hearing the two works back to back. Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), often thought of as an austere composer, reveals a rich late-Romantic vein in his only violin concerto, while Edward Elgar (1857-1934) is in his element in this wistful, nostalgic work. Although both pieces reveal the distinct and disparate styles of their composers, they share the same lyrical intensity that has made them part of the standard violin repertory today.Dong-Suk Kang The people at Naxos have a knack of unearthing the most astonishing talent from relatively obscure parts of the world. While the major labels (DG, Decca, et al) have concentrated on star-name soloists with presentable visual images, Naxos has actively sought to record musicians with lesser credentials but equally valid artistic merits. Dong-Suk Kang is one of these fabulous finds (along with Kun-Woo Paik, Konstantin Scherbakov and Ilya Kaler) and this disc showcases his substantial skills. Winner of the San Francisco Symphony Competition and the Merriweather Post Competition, his recordings have been awarded the Grand Prix du Disque of the Academie Charles Cros and the Nouvelle Academie du Disque.
I have noticed a certain inconsistency in the recording of orchestras in Naxos discs and I’m afraid to announce that the Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra is poorly represented in the Sibelius concerto. Although the soloist is well-miked, the orchestra sounds recessed and emerges as a misty blur. In the pianissimo passages in the first movement, the orchestra is so inadequately recorded that they actually intermittently fade away into nothingness! The balance between the violinist and the orchestra makes the soloist dominant. For example, after the first passage of the soloist, the orchestra comes in at the same sound level, with the cellos and the timpani blending into each other so much so that they sound the same!
Sibelius in 1889 Kang plays well, although not as impressively as in the Elgar. He is also not as well-recorded, his tone seemingly thin on top. In the sweeping Italianate theme in the first movement, Kang lacks bite, preferring to emphasise the lyrical aspect rather than than the emotional. The playing is technically secure, although it does not exude confidence. This is most apparent in the closing of the first movement, where Kang hits all the notes, but sounding pushed to the limit.

Kang comes off best in the second movement, where his relaxed tone spins out the tender themes beautifully. However, the recording again detracts from the achievement of the playing as the orchestra becomes slightly shrill at times. The “aural wallpaper” quality of the recording actually aids in creating a hazy atmosphere here. The gypsy-themed third movement is relatively disappointing. The orchestra is a key factor in providing the pulsating background that interjects dramatically — here it sounds absolutely puny. Kang’s rendition also does not have the “hop, skip and jump” quality of the best versions. The harmonic passage near the end also does not raise the hair on my nape. This movement does not emerge as a roller-coaster ride as it should as Kang does not flourish the power required to pull it off convincingly.

In contrast, the Elgar is a much greater success. The orchestra is immaculately captured, coming across full and appropriately weighty right from the opening “Windflower” theme. The rich and warm sound of the musicians reveal the inherent richness in the sweeping score. The entrance of Kang is rapturously expressive, intoning a doom-laden snarl. He plays extremely confidently, making small play of the difficult running passages. It is obvious that Kang is in perfect empathy with the spirit of the music. The first movement culminates impressively, the rapid bowing of the soloist building up a frenzy.Sir Edward Elgar The heart-wrenching second movement is beautifully conveyed, with Leaper controlling every ebb and swell expertly. The descending notes just before the end of the movement are most magically done, accompanied by a heart-breaking turn of phrase that perhaps suggests a realization that there is no returning to the past. The complicated passages in the third movement pose no challenge for Kang’s technique. He dispatches the choppy notes easily, sliding into easy trills and extended notes easily. The soloist is on top of his game throughout, even during the extended cadenza-like passage where he sustains interest despite the sparse material. The only quibble of Kang’s playing is his airy high register which does not possess sufficient evenness. The concerto comes to a sure finish, the closing chords emphatically assertive.Kang’s lack of international reputation should not dissuade you from purchasing this disc if you enjoy the Elgar and are looking to acquire a listening copy (see also our review of the recently-released Kennedy recording). For the novice wanting to get acquainted with the Elgar, this is an ideal first purchase, given its affordable price. Kang is a exciting violinist, and I would certainly attend a “live” performance should the opportunity arise. Similarly, I have enjoyed the playing of the PNRSO under Antoni Wit in Smetana’s Ma Vlast (Naxos 8.550931) and the conducting of Adrian Leaper with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in Tchaikovsky (Marche Slave, Capriccio Italien, Romeo and Juliet Fantasy and 1812 Overture; Naxos 8.550500).Ultimately, you will want to get this disc for the Elgar. For those who do not wish to obtain another version of the Sibelius, there exists an alternative issue of the Elgar concerto with the Cockaigne overture (Naxos 8.550489, 61 minutes). Informative notes, as usual, from Naxos, an impressive hallmark of a label that is budget in price but not of quality.


Isaak Koh watches the Great Composers series on Premiere 12 every week. You should, too. 



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