Brahms Violin Concerto -

This remarkable performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto stands among the finest available - indeed, it's just about perfect, and all the more remarkable coming from a soloist who also (at least nominally) conducts. I say "nominally" because one of the most outstanding features of this performance is the genuine feeling of collaboration between Swensen and the orchestra, the wind soloists in particular. That makes the slow movement, with its gorgeous opening oboe solo (beautifully phrased and really in tune), the real heart of the piece and an ideal point of repose between the vigorous outer movements. The smallish forces of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra also serve to highlight the chamber music nature of the music-making, but they never sound thin or underpowered at the climaxes: lithe and supple is more like it.

Swensen adopts a particularly well-judged tempo for the opening movement. At 23 minutes, it has room to breathe, but it never bogs down. The entry of the soloist is beautifully prepared, and Swensen's tone is particularly well caught by the microphones--a rich and sweet sound that never turns shrill. He phrases the second subject with a genuine, singing line and offers a particularly focused cadenza. In the finale, his little rhetorical touches in the principal theme never descend into mannerism. Each return of the rondo theme is excellently timed, as is the diminuendo at the end. Swensen projects the full measure of the music's humor, with his effortless technique always placed in the service of emotional expression.

As a conductor in the Hungarian Dances Swensen proves himself no less adept. Both in terms of selection as well as in their arrangement, these performances rank among the best. All of the dances arranged by Dvorák are included (Nos. 17-21), three by Brahms himself (Nos. 1, 3, and 10), with the balance apportioned among Gal, Hallen, and Schmeling (whose tasteful No. 5 probably the finest among existing orchestrations). The playing has great verve and a real rhythmic kick, with plenty of character in terms of rubato but never a hint of excessive schmaltz. Like the concerto, the conducting and playing keep the focus squarely on just how enjoyable and expressive the music is, not on what the performers are doing to it. Toss in top quality sonics, whether in stereo or in vibrantly natural multichannel surround-sound, and the result is simply irresistible.

01 June 2004