New Classical Tracks: Beethoven and Britten

by Julie Amacher
November 17, 2009

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Janine Jansen - Beethoven, Britten: Violin Concertos (Courtesy London/Decca)

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In its earliest years of performance, Beethoven's violin concerto had quite a few detractors. They were vexed by the lengthy orchestral introduction -- which stubbornly withheld the violin soloist for about 3 minutes -- and by Beethoven's audacity in beginning that introduction with a timpani solo!

After its premiere, it faded into relative obscurity for a few decades, until Felix Mendelssohn dusted it off and handed it to a 12-year-old Joseph Joachim, whose legendary performance launched the concerto into its permanent place at the top of the violin repertoire.

It's interesting to know that it was a performance from a pre-teen that did the job, especially when generations of violinists since have been told they should wait to play the Beethoven, until they're older and more seasoned.

"When I was young especially, they always said, 'Oh, Beethoven concerto? You should not play until you're like, 50 years old, and you're mature and you have experienced life,'" said Dutch violinist Janine Jansen, who'd probably be the first to admit that she did dive in a little too early.

Jansen said she initially performed it at a very young age, and it was the longest 45 minutes of her life. But now she's gone into the recording studio to revisit it.

She says with time and maturity, she's gained a deeper understanding of the concerto, and has "learnt not to focus too much on [her] own part."

According to Jansen, the Beethoven is the purest concerto in the violin repertoire, and she was a little worried that her own style would be too romantic to mesh with Paavo Jarvi and the German Chamber Philharmonic, whom she describes as having a very pure sound with little vibrato.

But, she'd heard their performances of the Beethoven symphonies, and said that it was absolutely clear that she had to record the Beethoven with them.

"Their understanding of this music is very special and unique," she said.

Janine Jansen was thrilled to be able to pair the Beethoven concerto with one by Benjamin Britten on the same disc. She was especially excited about the Britten, because it's more of a "hidden gem" in the repertoire, but, she said, it "deserves to be there right next to the top."

Britten's concerto, perhaps as an homage to Beethoven's, also starts with solo timpani. The opening movement is sweet and soaring, and somewhat subdued. But it's the last movement that captured Jansen's heart. She says it's the concerto's "emotional center of gravity."

"The coda starts like a prayer and becomes a cry of pain and despair," said Jansen. "After playing the last notes, I feel emotionally finished and empty, yet at the same time nourished and filled with wonder."

Though the concertos have a few things in common, Jansen says they're two "completely different sound worlds."

That's why she opted to partner with two different orchestras for the recording. She definitely wanted an English orchestra for the Britten, one with what she called "an intensity of sound." She was delighted with the London Symphony Orchestra, and they played the concerto in concert together many many times before laying down this recording.

"We really got to know each other with this piece," she said.

Jansen will continue to wow audiences and critics alike with her frankly breathtaking performances and fearless exploration of repertoire, both well traveled and out of the way.

This CD is the realization of her long-held dream to pair Beethoven with Britten. While her satisfaction and delight are evident, listeners like us also reap the benefits.