Dvorák’s Violin Concerto is a neglected masterpiece, overshadowed by its cello counterpart and the New World Symphony, but it’s never likely to have a better advocate than German violinist Julia Fischer. Don’t be fooled into thinking that the glamorous 30-year-old former prize-winner in the Menuhin Competition is yet another of these ubiquitous entertainers firing up the classics while prancing about decoratively in Armani. She’s a violinist of the old school, with a sweet, penetrating tone (old-timers should think David Oistrakh or Nathan Milstein) focussed always on the phrase at hand and never the personality driving it. And she’s found her conducting counterpart in David Zinman and his Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra, a man whose recording history, taking in THE recording of the Górecki Third Symphony and an acclaimed complete Beethoven cycle plus much more, turns many of the oh-darling-isn’t-he-wonderful celebrity conductors into also-rans.
The balance of this recording, the sympatico between soloist and orchestra, and the intelligence of the approach is a joy, the first movement filled with Dvorák’s Czech equivalent of Sturm und Drang (the result, perhaps, of his friendships with Brahms and Joachim who both had some kind of hand in the concerto’s genesis), while the slow movement is as lovely as you would expect. But Fischer saves the pyrotechnics until the finale. Its fabulously rollicking orchestral part and bow-shredding, string-hopping violin pirouettes suit Fischer’s take-no-prisoners approach, and result in some intentionally harsh tones, like a beautiful actress deliberately taking on an ugly role. The coupling with Bruch’s old chestnut is ideal, which begs the question of why it’s not done more often. Fischer and Zinman fairly relish Bruch’s haunting opening phrases and also the dramatic first orchestral tutti and its strident main theme on the violin.
Fischer then pours the necessary buckets of pathos into the slow movement, but never to the point of self-indulgence, as if she finds the whole thing so interesting and serious that there’s just no need to wallow.
But then, just as you start to consider this disc for classic status, the Finale enters and somehow doesn’t quite add up. It’s strangely unsettled in the phrasing, thrilling when it all comes into clearer definition, but a breakneck-speed mass of not entirely convincing detail when it doesn’t. Presumably Fischer’s seen the finish-line, and like the musical thoroughbred that she is, no amount of lovely scenery along the way is going to distract her.