Of course we violin concerto lovers have been following Nikolaj Znaider since his debut concerto disc for EMI, playing the Nielsen & Bruch (1st) violin concertos. His presentation is impeccable in a way that can only remind us listeners of the late and great - but allegedly too cool and removed - Jascha Heifitz. Next we got the Prokofiev 2nd violin concerto and the Glazunov, topped off with a ravishing but entirely unsentimentalized reading of the Tchaikovsky Meditation. By the second release, Znaider had jumped ship, from EMI to RCA / BMG. Now presumably BMG is Sony BMG. I haven't heard the third BMG / RCA release of violin encores with piano, since to be frank that sort of repertoire typically puts me off unless it is really being played as an encore at the end of a concert or recital. All encores have the appeal of bon-bons; to me one at a time is quite enough, even if I am fighting off a depressive day.
Among the honorific banners trailing behind this young adult phenomenon are first prizes in both the Carl Nielsen 1992 competition, and the 1997 Queen Elizabeth. UN-like so many competition first prize winners, Nikolaj Znaider has not yet peaked as an artist and as a musician, however much he may continue to display high and astounding talents on the violin.
Oh yes, another clue: Znaider plays a Strad (the ex-Liebig 1704) - on loan to him through the Royal Danish Theater, funded by two Danish corporation foundations. (Vellux, and Hojgaard)
As schools of violin playing go, then, Znaider is old money, not nouveau rich.
Worrisome for me are Znaider's partners on this disc. I have not always found Zubin Mehta to be inspired in all his efforts. Neither have I consistently liked the Israel Philharmonic on disc. For one thing, their hall acoustic at the Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv has frequently sounded too dry, too lacking resonance, with a boxy and constricted impact as recorded. I also have thought I too often heard fiddle-faddle competency from this conductor or this orchestra when I dearly wanted to hear heart or mind or song.
The disc of course began to change my mind and soothe away my quibbles from the first moment.
Bravo to whomever took the entirely apt choice of putting the Mendelssohn concerto first on this disc, although of course the marketing people are pushing the Beethoven on the cover. Just that little detail suggests much - that, for example, somebody was actually paying thoughtful attention to musical order.
Putting the Mendelssohn first also suggests that perhaps musical considerations continued to exercise influence, even after the recording equipment was turned off in Tel Aviv. Bravo again, then.
An audience anecdote of 2005 has it that, when Znaider appeared in Chicago to play the Mendelssohn with the Chicago Symphony under Daniel Barenboim, the second half of the program was the Mahler Fifth Symphony. Having performed as the soloist in the first half of the concert, Znaider then slipped discreetly into the last row of the first desk violin section where he proceeded to join everyone in the whole of the Mahler that followed.
The sheer easefulness or capability which these details suggest is rather winsomely on display in the Mendelssohn. The violin tone Znaider spins has a consistent platinum light, especially in the upper reaches. He somehow reminds me in those moments of one of my very favorite older violinists, Henryk Szeryng. (1918-1988) The association with Heifitz comes mainly via the extreme facility and wide range of Znaider's superb technical abilities. Just enough of a hint of hot tone remains for the strings vibrating under Znaider's fingers that you realize that even platinum is born in furnace fires for both jewelers and scientists. Think alchemy.
Nor is this performance marred by either conductor or band.
Zubin Mehta is awake and listening, apparently in every bar. So he renews his credentials as a musician who has not fallen yet again into bored professionalisms. This is no mean feat when you pause to consider how many times a successful world class conductor must do Beethoven over the years. The written notes never change much, but undeniably the music does. So also is the Israel Philharmonic on this disc. Nobody is workmanlike in the lesser sense, nor are they asleep as the music passes by, page after page after page.
At least on this one disc, the dry and deadly box of the Mann Auditorium does not haunt the achieved sound. It would appear that at least this one time, engineers Andreas Neubronner, Stephan Schellmann and others have somehow managed to exorcise those ghosts of Christmases past.
All to the good; none of the expected difficulties of conductor, orchestra, or venue materialize.
This leaves Znaider to lift everything to higher plane all together. Just hear how Znaider plays the old, familiar Kreisler cadenzas for the Beethoven as if he were making them up.
There is nothing eccentric about these interpretations. All the fire and the flash and the superlative easefulness simply serve profoundly musical ends, ever second of every bar of the music. For that reason, it may be that some will tend to underestimate what Znaider is doing here. After all, he makes it all sound so completely within his instrument's grasp, so fluent. Znaider's musical style leans more towards elegance, subtlety, and patrician warmth than to display as such. One suspects that violin display soon leaves the listening room, neglected, bored to tears at the lack of opportunities for fiddle grandstanding. With a smile we might recall that at the premiere of the Beethoven, the fiddler Clements played an interpolated composition of his own, reversing his grip and playing his fiddle upside down to wow the crowd. The Beethoven survived that debut, just imagine. Highly recommended. Have no fears on this one.