Joseph Swensen & SCO - Violin Concertos Collection - MusicWeb International

The title ‘Violin Concertos Collection’ is something of a misnomer, in that only four of the twelve works featured in this set are actually concertos, the rest being symphonies, suites, dances and an overture. The performances are all strong and intelligent, as well as a real pleasure to listen to, even when most pieces are very well known.

The set opens with a disc of Mendelssohn, and which starts well with an atmospheric and flowing performance of The Hebrides Overture that makes a good opener to the disc and the set as a whole. This is followed by the Violin Concerto in E minor, this is a very safe recording, nice toned performance but lacking a little excitement, Swensen has the measure of the Concerto and gets to the heart of the work, it is just that in a work as well-known as this I wanted a little something to set it apart from the rest. It is however, a very fine performance and the SCO back up their soloist/conductor very well indeed. The 'Scottish' Symphony is also given a very nice performance here, a nuanced and detailed view that keeps closely to the score, with Swensen able to bring out the songlike elements especially in the slow third movement.

I have always found the Brahms Violin Concerto a little on the long side, it is my least favourite of the four concertos offered here, and I am afraid that this performance doesn’t do anything to persuade me otherwise. Whilst the tempos are good, I find Swensen’s tone a little harsh at times, something which is highlighted by the smaller than usual band, people will have their favoured recording, even me, but this performance doesn’t do enough to eclipse them. The rest of the disc is taken up with fourteen of the Hungarian Dances in the usual orchestrations, which are given lively and very enjoyable readings, they have a swagger that carries you along with the music. It is these Hungarian Dances which for me are the highlight of the disc.

Disc three opens with a crisp reading of Dvořák’s Violin Concerto, well measured with tempos that well suit the playing of Swensen and the SCO. Swensen has a nice approach to this Concerto both as soloist and as conductor, with a nice use of vibrato in the playing of both soloist and ensemble, whilst Swensen’s use of rubato is well judged to emphasise particular passages. The concerto is followed by a very good performance of the Czech Suite, something which in my opinion does not get the airtime it deserves. There is some nice playing throughout but especially in the Preludium, the Polka with its rustic charm and the Sousedská. The final two pieces on this disc are the charming Nocturne for string orchestra and the livelier A Major Waltz from the Two Waltzes, Op. 54 in the version for string orchestra.

The final disc presents the G minor Violin Concerto No.2 of Prokofiev in tandem with his ever popular ‘Classical’ Symphony both of which are given a marvellous performance, this is the finest of the four discs in this set. The Concerto is marked with poise and well-shaped playing both by Swensen and the SCO, with well controlled tempos, especially in the first two long slow opening movements. The First Symphony also benefits from well controlled tempos with well coloured playing from SCO, especially the strings in the slow movement, whilst the winds are excellent throughout and offer some characterful playing. The final work introduces Joseph Swensen, not only as violinist and conductor, but also as arranger and orchestrator. The Five Melodies were originally composed for violin and piano, but here Swensen gives them a wonderful and sympathetic arrangement which keeps the feel of the original whilst offering new sonorities in a performance that is both excellent and most welcome.

Overall this is a welcome reissue with performances by Swensen that are at least good, with the Antonin Dvořák and the Sergei Prokofiev being the highlights. 

29 January 2019