We may be entering an even more dismal economic period where classical music recordings will sharply decline, but here at least is a major release, featuring Gergiev, the world's top Russian onductor, the Vieena Phil., and a rising violinist whom RCA/BMG clearly believes in. Nikolaj Znaider is hardly a household name in the U.S., but his new Brahms Concerto is vying with last year's from Christian Tetzlaff (EMI) and this year's from Vadim Repin (DG) -- three virtuosos who happen also to be serious musicians, all three bidding to stand out in the generation after Mutter, Perlman, Zukerman, and Kremer.
Right off, it should be said that Znaider is not a personality violinist -- few among his peers aspire to be -- and like Joshua Bell and Gil Shaham, he places a high value on making astonishingly suave, beautiful sounds, employing a flowing line and refined phrasing. The problem with such refinement is that it can seem like much of a muchness. Brahms provided a concerto whose ambitions are symphonic, and Znaider must compete on equal footing with Gergiev's strongly expressed accompaniment. He largely succeeds, and their partnership recalls the impeccably matched Shaham and Abbado in their account on DG. Neither version, however, really stirs the blood with excitement.
Znaider doesn't rise to the iconic level of an Oistrakh or Menuhin, but he has the advantage of smashing recorded sound and, of course, the Vienna Phil. purring as plushly as anyone oculd wish. It's in the quieter music that oonductor and soloist excel -- the Adagio, taken a bit briskly, floats on a cloud of sensitive lyricism. For once, the melody seems to be a moving experience for the violinist. I think the finale succeeds best when its gypsy side flashes out. Unfortunately, Gergiev and Znaider are both rather foursquare and tame, so don't expect the runaway momentum of Kremer and Bernstein (on DG, still my favorite modern account). All in all, this recording runs about even with Tetzlaff's and Repin's, achieving a high level of musicality but not drama.
Better is to follow. Compared with the Brahms, Korngold's concerto is like drowning in a vat of warm butterscotch, but all is forgiven when you hear a performance of this exemplary quality -- Znaider and Gergiev treat every phrase like a gem set in a masterpiece. There are many other good recordings of this swooning concerto out there, but only this one adds so much refinement, dignity, and sincerity that it's irresistible. I wish the tail wasn't wagging the dog here, but for me the Korngold outshone the Brahms.
P.S. Nov. 2012 - On a recent listen I was struck with how beautifully detailed Znaider's Brahms is and how gorgeous his tone. I probably underrated the performance the first time around.