A Perfect Prokofiev?

Sibelius and Prokofiev Violin Concertos

Janine Jansen (vln)

Klaus Mäkelä/Oslo Philharmonic

Decca 485 4748 CD

By Roy Gregory

With the extended playing time of CD (relative to LP) it has become common to couple works in this way. But in doing so, there’s always a risk of creating a disc that represents “a game of two halves”. It’s an unfair and arguably unhelpful scenario, in which a stellar performance can be dragged down or discarded on the basis that its partner isn’t up to scratch. It’s the classic ‘glass half-full or glass half empty’ conundrum. Yet in the case of recordings, half a disc being brilliant is more than enough reason to buy it.

Lisa Batiashvili’s Tchaikovsky/Sibelius recording with Barenboim is a case in point: the Tchaikovsky is spectacular, the Sibelius less so, overshadowed by her own earlier reading with Sakari Oramo and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. Nor is that an isolated example and in this, Janine Jansen’s latest recording for Decca, we have yet another – and once again it is the Sibelius that comes off second best. Jansen’s authoritative and compelling Prokofiev First Violin Concerto matches the brilliance of Batiashvili’s Tchaikovsky, justifying the price of admission on its own. Meanwhile, her Sibelius, also like the version on the Batishvili recording, is far from a bust: it just isn’t consistent enough across the work to justify front rank status, adding further weight to my suspicion that it is arguably the most testing of all violin concertos. Much of that is down to its intense, emotive quality, an expressive depth that invites (perhaps demands) real emotional range from the soloist. My collection of Sibelius recordings on both record and CD is extensive – and growing – but I find myself constantly returning to those of Ida Haendel/Berglund and Camilla Wicks. Still, half the fun is in the hunt and if Jansen isn’t an obvious choice for the piece, she’s certainly has something to say about it.

Maybe it’s her multiple resident seasons in London, but sometimes it seems as though Janine Jansen has been with us forever, her playing a by-word for the sort of poise and studied elegance you can rely on for a great live performance. A prolific performer of both orchestral and chamber music, her concert performances far outstrip a relatively modest recorded output, at least by modern standards. She made her debut for Decca in 2003, at the age of 25, following that with a well-received small ensemble arrangement of the Vivaldi Four Seasons in 2004. Her Tchaikovsky (2008) and Beethoven/Britten (2009) discs were also critical successes and, over the years, she has steadily worked her way through most of the mainstream repertoire, leavened with a scattering of chamber pieces, notably those of Shostakovich and Prokofiev. Unlike many established violinists, she has not felt the need to revisit her earlier recorded works, or flood the market with celebrity collaborations.

So perhaps it should come as no surprise that this release marks her first recordings of both the Sibelius and Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto. If ever two pieces warranted working up to, these (along with the Shostakovich) are they. It also marks her first collaboration with Klaus Mäkelä (the current incumbent at the Philhamonie and the Orchestra de Paris, although here directing his other band, the Oslo Philharmonic) so I was intrigued to see how the pairing handled these two monumental works for violin and orchestra.