violinist, recording artist, podcaster & writer

• 02 MAY 2013 - Review - Fanfare Mag - Robert Maxhan - this performance goes beyond the early recordings of Isaac Stern and Zino Francescatti, and even Gidon Kremer

Alexander Courage’s lavish arrangement of numbers from George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess features a violin part that sounds both brilliant and idiomatic. Jascha Heifetz transcribed some of these pieces for violin and piano; his versions likely haunt violinists listening to Gershwin’s melodies whenever they’re belted out by a violin. But Courage’s Fantasy and violinist Rachel Kolly d’Alba’s performance should set echoes of their own flying. Heifetz doesn’t even seem to inhabit the shadows cast by “It Ain’t Necessarily So” in this reading (or “Summertime,” to which Courage, d’Alba, and conductor John Axelrod bring a stylish sultriness that suits it almost as well as did Heifetz’s nearly overheated intensity. The violinist’s languid reading of “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” also manages to break free from Heifetz’s mold, partly due to the richly suggestive orchestration. The Fantasy concludes with an Andantino con molto calore and a Cadenza and Finale (brief cadenzas also provide transitions between several of the movements, for example, at the end of “There’s a Boat Leavin’”).

Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade, scored for solo violin, strings, harp, and percussion, which, d’Alba suggests in her booklet notes, the composer considered his best work, occupies the middle of the program. D’Alba’s shimmering, pure tone soars in the first movement, “Phaedrus,” far above Axelrod’s sonorous accompaniment, recorded with a minute attention to detail by Warner’s engineers; and both violinist and orchestra play the Allegro with jaunty playfulness. They’re appropriately tentative, and later, elfin, in Aristophanes , but however strong her adherence to the program, d’Alba’s playing consistently affords a sort of sensuous pleasure in and of itself, both tonally and technically. That’s true even in the scherzo-like Eryximachus. Agathon , which features the kind of rapt meditative passages to which violinists have become accustomed in works by 20th-century composers like Shostakovich, and d’Alba’s pure and slender tone proves wholly adequate to the intensity of its climactic passages. Axelrod transmits the high oratory in the opening of Socrates : in Alcibaides , and he and d’Alba allow the music to subside in hushed reflection before the boisterous conclusion.

In design and execution (as well as in its recorded sound), this performance goes beyond the early recordings of Isaac Stern and Zino Francescatti, and even Gidon Kremer (all with the composer conducting). For example, the jazzy interjections by percussion and pizzicato bass sound almost startling—though idiomatic—here. Franz Waxman’s Carmen Fantasy , played by Isaac Stern in the movie, Humoresque , later became a repertoire staple, slowly even supplanting Pablo Sarasate’s Fantasy on some of the same operatic tunes (JenÅ‘ Hubay’s reworking of the melodies has never reached the same level of popularity).

Rachel Kolly d’Alba plays it with an almost over-the-top joie de vivre and smoldering expressivity that render it highly entertaining as well as highly impressive.

Robert Maxham