Sunday, October 25, 2015

Steven Staryk Plays the Schumann, Walton, and Mendelssohn Violin Concertos

Steven Staryk
A Retrospective: Volume 7
Centaur CRC 3366

I rarely write about CDs in this space, but this recording on Centaur, which will be available this November 13th is really something special and worthy of your attention. I got an advance copy from Mr. Staryk, and I resisted the temptation to listen to it until the month of November was in sight. Now I just have to write about it.

Joseph Joachim's will stated that the Schumann Violin Concerto could not be performed until 100 years after Schumann's death (Joachim and Clara Schumann did not understand the piece and were therefore unable to understand its value). In 1937 Yehudi Menuhin got permission, after Joachim's granddaughter located the manuscript, to violate the will, but the Nazi authorities would not allow Menuhin to premiere the Concerto. It was performed and first recorded by Georg Kulenhampff, but was not given the performance it deserved. Staryk's performance with the Toronto Festival Orchestra (1983 or 1985) with Pierre Hétu conducting IS the performance this piece deserves. (I find the Kulenhampff recording unlistenable now. I just have it here for reference.)

The Concerto had a slight resurgence in the last decade, and there have been some very good recordings of it, but this concert performance is really remarkable. The recorded sound of the orchestra is not pristine (it was probably recorded using a microphone placed in the audience), but it is rich, commanding, and beautifully phrased. Staryk plays the solo part on the Barrere Strad, which has a fantastically complex sound. His eloquent elocution in the opening declamatory passages continues with absolute focused attention throughout the piece.

Because of Staryk's commanding musical "vision," there is no way to listen without becoming completely involved in the music making. Staryk has such integrity as a violinist that every single one of the difficulty arranged notes sounds clear and clean (even through some of the recorded fuzz, and the occasional bump--like the big one at around 8:30 of the first movement).

The crystal clear scale passages in the last movement are certainly impressive:

But what is most impressive to me is the way they operate as fine filagree in the musical texture rather than as pure foreground. I have heard recordings of the piece where the passage work in the last movement feels like pure torture. Here it feels like pure pleasure, albeit the kind of pleasure you get from watching high-wire artists perform death-defying acrobatics.

Then we get the Walton Concerto. This recording comes from a 1981 radio broadcast, and the recorded sound is better than the recorded sound in the Schumann Concerto. It is charming and brilliant, and you really get to hear all the colors Staryk gets from the Barerre Strad and the way the orchestration reflects those colors. I actually prefer this recording (with Mario Bernardi leading the National Arts Centre Orchestra of Ottawa) to Menuhin's recording with the composer conducting, but I tend to prefer Staryk's playing to Menuhin's playing in general.

Staryk uses the Muntz Strad for his performance of the Mendelssohn Concerto with the University of Victoria Orchestra conducted by George Corwin. The balance between the solo violin and the orchestra is often a problem in performances of the Mendelssohn Concerto, and one would imagine that it would be a problem during this outdoor public performance in 1973, but the commanding sound of the Muntz Strad can be heard clearly even in pianissimo passages, and even when the occasional breeze causes the sound to waft away from the microphone.

I love the brisk tempos, particularly the tempo of the slow movement (which is not slow).

You'll have to wait for a few weeks before this recording becomes available, so in the meantime, particularly if you are unfamiliar with Staryk's playing and career, you might like to read this interview I did with him in 2009. And I'm sure you would certainly enjoying hearing the recordings on this YouTube channel devoted to films of Staryk playing recitals, concertos, and even donning a red wig and playing the part of Vivaldi in a film.

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