This, the second disc featuring Latvian violinist Baiba Skride to have come my way demonstrates her commitment to concertos on record. Both discs feature the same violin, the "Huggins" Stradivarius dating from 1708. Both were recorded in the same Berlin studio.
The immediacy of the Mozart concerto’s opening movement makes you aware of an orchestra that has true chamber proportions yet does not suffer from a lack of presence. For a variety of reasons, but foremost due to a certain similarity of approach, I listened to this recording alongside that of Pamela Frank and Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich under David Zinman (Arte Nova 74321 72104 2). In the playoff of orchestral body and tone this new Sony recording comes out a clear front-runner. Not only are they more warmly recorded and also have a slightly richer sound overall, the bass line is just that more noticeable, giving a bit of extra punch to the rhythms.
Where Zinman is happy to deliver a fleet-footed performance that is pared down to the basics, Haenchen’s approach though similar does not take things quite so quickly. This extra space for the music to breathe and establish itself is beneficial to the work as a whole. So too is the presence of the woodwinds and brass – helping in large measure to form an integrated orchestral sound as a dialogue partner for Skride’s solo line.
So what of Skride’s playing? Well, it is marked by precision, and although not being as forwardly recorded as in her debut album, she does stand out well against the orchestra. Much of her playing has an entirely natural flow to it, with fluctuations of dynamics registering but not really seeming overly self-consciously produced. Placed against Pamela Frank’s reading one is immediately aware of how much harder Frank’s tone is – something that in the end works against the spirit of the music. Another area of difference is the cadenzas: Frank plays ones written by Zinman that seem a little over-long for my taste, Skride’s offering being more natural and more subtly phrased into the bargain.
There is here a sweetness of tone, often given at a shaded pianissimo, and a sense of singing line. There are notable contributions from the flutes, bringing an appropriate sense of reflection. The closing Rondeau: Allegro is an altogether sprightlier affair, as one would hope, giving Skride the opportunity to deliver variations in tonal colouring to make this the most remarkable of the concerto’s three movements.
In keeping with the rondo form and major key a neat link is formed to the second Mozart work which is delivered in much the same style as the concerto. However, with a greater lightness of touch and transparency in the orchestration Skride’s solo line is if anything more prominent in this rondo.
The symmetry of the disc is preserved with a further rondo and another concerto. Guido Fischer in his accompanying note calls Mozart, Schubert and Michael Haydn key exponents of "the Austrian violin axis". Schubert’s contribution is forward looking anticipating the character of his future works. In their playing the Kammerorchester C.P.E.Bach show subtle differences in style and articulation from the Mozart works. Skride too allows the work a touch less opulence in tone, though she maintains a clearly articulated singing line that is always sensitively played.
It’s comparatively rare these days that a concerto by Michael Haydn (the younger brother of Joseph) is recorded. Known as the ‘Salzburg Haydn’, Michael took over the position of Salzburg cathedral organist from Mozart in 1781. Based largely on Baroque models the concerto at times points directly towards Mozart’s third concerto, penned some fifteen years later. Outward simplicity of form and structure contains notable technical challenges, particularly for the soloist, in the triplet runs of both the opening Allegro moderato and the closing Allegro molto. Skride copes well with the challenges, and succeeds in large measure in keeping the listener’s concentration on the music rather than the difficulty of the task she meets head on. The middle Adagio lends the concerto a much needed intimacy, which is impressively put across.
This is on the whole an impressive concerto debut disc. True, Skride might not have the personal tonal stamp of violinists from yesteryear, but what she does have is a sense of style allied to a modern attitude and approach to these most Austrian of works. I can think of many today that don’t have that. With a second concerto disc (Shostakovich 1st and Janá?ek) already released in Germany, Sony would do well release internationally soon. Reportedly she takes a dim view of the crossover market. Looks as if we might have a serious artist on our hands. The first two discs certainly make it seem so.