David Truslove reviews a timely release from Resonus Classics – a BBC National Orchestra of Wales recording of Jean Sibelius: Violin Concerto, Op. 47 & Humoresques, Opp. 87 & 89, featuring Fenella Humphreys and George Vass.
Under principal conductor Thomas Søndergård (2011-2018), BBC NOW began a Sibelius recording project with Linn Records which produced four symphonies and a handful of tone poems, all securing mostly favourable reviews.
That Sibelius had been a preoccupation for conductor and orchestra has more recently borne fruit in the wonderfully transparent playing set down by Resonus Classics for this disc recorded in Hoddinott Hall during January and February 2020.
The bulk of the CD is taken up with Sibelius’s Violin Concerto and the Humoresques, and then the world premiere of Celestial Voyage by the Californian-born composer Nors S Josephson. Linking these works is the up-and-coming British violinist Fenella Humphreys …
That still may be the case today, but Humphreys and the warmly considerate collaborators within the BBC NOW bring considerable finesse to these delightful [Humoresques], the first captivating for its soulfulness and dancing spontaneity. There’s abundant scintillation in the second, brooding enigmas conspicuously absent here and technical demands seemingly brushed aside.
The keening gestures of the third might, in other hands, sound icy, but under Vass are cherished and lead to a witty and whimsical account.
The fourth is tender; its “smiling through tears” gratifyingly achieved, and the fifth is a model of refinement, its commodo tempo scrupulously observed. Although no less finely executed, the sixth feels a little sedate, and brings to mind the electricity of Aaron Rosand’s 1969 inimitable rendition on Turnabout. But if you’re looking for eloquence, these performances more than fit the bill. And let’s not ignore the unmistakeable empathy between soloist and these obliging instrumentalists.
This is readily apparent in the focussed energy of the Violin Concerto, where the BBC NOW form an alert partnership with Fenella Humphreys, her flawless technique and sense of poise impressing from the outset. Sweet-toned but never cloying, her violin glows with affection and ardour, the main theme shaped with care, and her two cadenzas variously resolute and gentle. There’s athleticism too, and passagework is dashed off with consummate ease.
Throughout, balance and momentum are well judged, Vass astutely integrating climaxes and enabling orchestral timbres to ripen with silky woodwind and briefly sonorous brass.
The central Adagio is no less intense (strings providing featherlight-support), and if just shy of sounding laboured, its yearning is well caught. I’ve heard faster Finales (try Christian Tetzlaff’s white knuckle ride on Ondine), but this more measured gallop is not without excitement and favours crisp rhythms and colourful detail, its closing bars tension-filled and satisfyingly rousing.
American musicologist and composer Nors S Josephson (born 1942) provides an atmospheric bonus track. Conceived for orchestra and solo violin in 2019, his Celestial Voyage is a romantically inclined soundscape belonging more to the late 19th century than the present, and bears kinship with the pen of Max Bruch. For all that, it’s an agreeable pièce d’occasion, and if its cadenza tends to dominate the work’s nine minutes, Humphreys brings all her persuasive powers to bear.
Resonus RES10277 was released on 2nd April 2021.