Violin Concerto in A minor, Op.53
Sonata in F for Violin and Piano, Op.57
Sonatina in G for Violin and Piano, Op.100
Jack Liebeck (violin)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Katya Apekisheva (piano)
Concerto recorded 18 January 2005 in Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow; Sonata and Sonatina on 14 December 2006 in Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK
Reviewed by: Tully Potter
Reviewed: May 2009
CD No: SONY CLASSICAL 88697499632
Duration: 75 minutes
This fine release represents a hugely impressive debut on the Sony Classical label by the young British violinist Jack Liebeck. I have been hearing about Liebeck for some years but by the luck of the draw I have not previously encountered his playing. He produces a superb tone, across the entire range of his 1785 ‘Ex-Wilhelmj’ Giovanni Battista Guadagnini, and is thoroughly in sympathy with his programme.
Dvořák’s Violin Concerto had a difficult start in life, like most of the works with which Joseph Joachim got involved, and it has never quite established itself in the concert hall in Britain. In Central Europe it is a pillar of every fiddler’s repertoire. I am thoroughly prejudiced in favour of Czech violinists in this work; and on my shelves you will find Vása Príhoda, Josef Suk III, Václav Hudecek, Bohouslav Matousek and Frantísek Novotny. I also keep versions by David Oistrakh and Edith Peinemann with the Czech Philharmonic, as well as the wonderful live performance by Adolf Busch, who played a lot of Dvořák. The first version by Josef Suk III was one of those miraculous recordings where everything went right, including the contributions of the engineers and the Czech Philharmonic under Karel Ancerl. It will probably never be surpassed but it is quite old now, and youngsters must keep trying.
As it happens, I heard the Violin Concerto several times in the couple of weeks leading up to Liebeck’s release. I attended a very poor performance in the concert hall by Thomas Zehetmair, so poor that I checked the subsequent broadcast on BBC Radio 3, to make sure I was not being unfair. It sounded just as badly played over the air. I also listened to a performance on the Tahra label, allegedly featuring the German fiddler Gerhard Taschner – it is definitely not by him; I recognise the soloist and am still trying to run through my mental violin DNA bank to identify the mystery player.
My first thought on hearing Liebeck is that he sounds infinitely more sympathetic than his rival Daniel Hope, who has had a lot of exposure in recent years. Whereas I find Hope’s tone rather astringent, Liebeck’s falls easily on the ear. He makes a lovely sound on the E string and uses a certain amount of portamento, which I love – it is a stylistic must for this repertoire but some contemporary players cannot manage it. He creates a good feeling of breadth in the comparatively short opening movement. Liebeck sustains the romantic feeling of the slow movement well and is quite virtuosic in the finale, with infectious rhythm. I do not feel that he quite finds the magic for the lovely transition from the first movement to the second (Suk and Busch should be heard at this point).
He is well supported by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Garry Walker, although I have just a few niggles to report. A few times the orchestra moves a little heavily – at the very opening of the work and once or twice in the finale. You may also feel that Walker prods the accents in the finale a little too emphatically. The RSNO strings sound slightly under-powered. And there is just a hint of artificial balance in the otherwise excellent recording.
Rather than give librarians and collectors nightmares with their filing, Liebeck has opted for an all-Dvořák disc. The substantial three-movement Sonata in F features the lovely piano-playing of Katya Apekisheva, a young Russian who is making quite a reputation. Each movement of the Sonata starts appealingly and each time the good impression is maintained – quite a feat in the long first movement and its wistful final bars are beautifully done by both artists.
The rest of the disc is given up to the lovely little Sonatina that Dvořák wrote in America for two of his children, faking the opus number so that it should be the round-hundred. Liebeck is not quite as successful as the best Czech fiddlers with Dvořák’s ‘snaps’ but in every other way he and his partner are fully in control. The opening movement moves smartly, the Larghetto is nicely sung, the scherzo has a nice spring to it – plus a tiny inadvertent bounce of the bow – and the finale goes well. The recordings are resonant but not too much so.
For Dvořák’s violin-and-piano music you can generally count on Josef Suk III, especially the early mono versions with Jan Panenka. He has also done a beautiful live account of the Sonatina with Rudolf Firkusny, on CD and DVD. Historic versions of the Sonatina by Príhoda (with Michael Raucheisen) and Jirí Novák (with Pavel Stepan) are worth looking out for. Ivan Zenaty and Antonín Kubalek did a superb recital of all the violin-and-piano music on the Dorian label. If you see a copy, snap it up.
Where does this leave Liebeck? Very much in contention, I think – and, more to the point, easily available. I do not think that anyone else provides this particular programme; so if the combination of works appeals to you, put your money down at once.