Like a dog who keeps burying his favorite bone so he can have the pleasure of “discovering” it again, I return to the Danish violinist Nikolaj Znaider. It’s been gratifying to see him taking on the touchstones of the repertoire and, in a series of recordings for Sony Masterworks and RCA Red Seal (now one and the same), carving interpretive benchmarks next to those of the violin’s greatest masters. Most recently he did this with the Korngold Concerto, which Heifetz effectively owned in the years after it was written.
Now he comes to Elgar’s Violin Concerto in B minor, another benchmark. Znaider plays the Guarneri del Gesù that belonged to Fritz Kreisler—the violinist for whom Elgar wrote the concerto, and who, with Elgar conducting, gave its premiere in 1910; this is the first time the concerto has been recorded with the instrument on which it was premiered. Does it make a difference? Yes. But you needn’t take my word for it. Isaac Stern heard Kreisler play on numerous occasions. “He’d come out and twitch his mustache at the audience,” Stern once told me, “toss his jacket open, put the fiddle up, and start playing with a golden sound. And he got that sound using only about two-thirds of the bow. It was amazing!” In Znaider, old Fritz has found a violinist worthy of his instrument, and of the legacy that goes with it.
Elgar wanted this work to be played with emotion, and Znaider doesn’t disappoint. Nor does he hesitate to apply the schmalz—his opening statement is dripping with portamento—but in this as in every gesture, he seems prompted by a deep emotional engagement with the score. Znaider’s fingerwork is brilliant, and he draws that “golden” sound out of the fiddle in every phrase.
Nonetheless, Sir Colin Davis is the man. The coherence of this reading is his doing, and so is the way the performance taps into Elgar’s nervous intimations that the best may already be behind us. The Dresden orchestra—whose sound belongs to the beginning of the 20th century anyway— is exactly on his wavelength and plays splendidly. The Andante, where ardor and childlike innocence seem to meet, is gorgeous (the payoff for Davis’ 40 years’ acquaintance with the score), while the final movement’s accompanied cadenza, with the strings playing a “thrummed” pizzicato tremolando, has never been more effective.
If only the sonics were as enveloping and present as the performance. One hesitates to blame the venue, Dresden’s Lukaskirche, used for recordings for more than 50 years. Which leaves producer Andreas Neubronner and engineer Andreas Ruge, whose recording manages to make the upper end of the frequency spectrum sound unmusically abrasive, and the lower end weirdly attenuated and diffuse. Worse, so artificial is the mix that we hear Znaider’s every sniff and the scrape of every hair on his bow—and, from Sir Colin, every sympathetic grunt and groan as he urges the orchestra along—while the orchestral violins sound like they’re playing with the mutes on, the cellos and basses anemic, and the brass are thinned to the point of disembodiment. All told, an insult to the sound of this majestic orchestra.