Britten, Bruch Violin Concertos - Kerson Leong, Philharmonia Orchestra / Patrick Hahn. © 2023 Alpha Classics / Outhere Music France

CD Spotlight

A Rising Star

Benjamin Britten and Max Bruch violin concertos, enjoyed by GEOFF PEARCE

'... Kerson Leong and the Philharmonia Orchestra provide a coherent and compelling account.'


I had always thought that the Benjamin Britten Violin Concerto was poorly represented in recordings and concerts, but this is the second recording of this great concerto that I have reviewed in the last nine months, the other being performed by Augustin Hadelich - one of my very favourite violinists - and a search online revealed that it has been recorded by many great players over the last ten years or so. I am thrilled by this as I think it is one of the great violin concertos.

On this new recording, the Britten and the very popular Max Bruch No 1 Concerto are performed, along with another Bruch work, In Memoriam, which I had not heard before. The soloist on this new recording is Kerson Leong who comes from Canada, and at twenty-six, is a rising star amongst violinists. He possesses an excellent musical instinct paired with a dazzling technique and I think that listeners will enjoy this new recording very much, and that it is every bit as good as those recorded by many of the older and more established violinists.

Right from the outset of the Britten, you sense that Leong has come to grips with this most challenging and rather intense concerto. His sound is ravishing and lyrical when it needs to be, dance-like and playful at times, and purposeful and strong when it needs to be. I also find his intonation to be one of the best I have heard, particularly up in the very high reaches of the instrument, where sometimes players struggle a bit. He manages to realise the rather unsettling emotional content of the first movement which changes quickly. The Philharmonia Orchestra, under the direction of Patrick Hahn, responds magnificently.

Listen — Britten: Moderato con moto (Violin Concerto)
(ALPHA 946 track 1, 7:05-7:53) ℗ 2023 Alpha Classics / Outhere Music France :

The second movement is a great deal more animated than the first movement, and reminds me of a skier tearing down hill. It is a movement that demands supreme technical skill and an impeccable rhythmic sense, and Kerson Leong excels. Where the music slows down with the figure that contrasts the helter skelter of the first, he is equally at home and the instrument is dolorous. I remember the first time I heard this work, the second movement left a marked impression on me. The cadenza that takes up quite a lot of the second part of this movement requires a lot of care and attention, and this performer is very convincing.

Listen — Britten: Vivace (Violin Concerto)
(ALPHA 946 track 2, 1:33-2:23) ℗ 2023 Alpha Classics / Outhere Music France :

The third movement is significantly longer than the movements that precede it, and is a passacaglia. Britten was about the same age as the soloist and had been very disturbed by the Spanish Civil war, and the spectre of what was soon to embroil Europe. The movement is often bleak or sorrowful. There are also moments of ravishing contemplation. I do not think this is an easy movement to interpret, but I think that a lot of thought has gone into this recording and Kerson Leong and the Philharmonia Orchestra provide a coherent and compelling account.

Listen — Britten: Passacaglia (Violin Concerto)
(ALPHA 946 track 3, 6:51-7:37) ℗ 2023 Alpha Classics / Outhere Music France :

In Memoriam, Op 65, by Max Bruch is, like most of Bruch's works, seldom performed or recorded. It was written in 1893. It runs for over fourteen minutes and, as the title suggests, it is an elegy, filled with moments of sadness and also tender reflection. It receives a beautiful performance here, The soloist has a beautiful tone and such an assured technique that completely sweeps you into this work. Why don't we hear it more often?

Listen — Bruch: In Memoriam
(ALPHA 946 track 4, 4:57-5:51) ℗ 2023 Alpha Classics / Outhere Music France :

The First Violin Concerto of Bruch is one of the best-known and loved works in the violin repertoire, and it grew out of Bruch's friendship with Joseph Joachim. It was written very much earlier than In Memoriam, in 1868, and is his Opus 25. Over the years, it has received some magnificent recordings and performances, and is probably the only work of Bruch that most people know.

This work suits Kerson Leong's style of playing very much and his is as good a performance as I have heard. I do not really find comparisons work for me and usually hesitate to do so. The second movement's performance though did really remind me of an old recording a friend had of Nathan Milstein performing it (in 1953 with the Pittsburgh Orchestra and Steinberg), which is one of my all time favourites. This recording is different, probably largely because of current recording technologies in that I think the violin is more blended with what is around him.

Listen — Bruch: Adagio (Violin Concerto)
(ALPHA 946 track 6, 0:58-1:39) ℗ 2023 Alpha Classics / Outhere Music France :

I think this is one of those recordings that is exciting because it is early in this artist's career. One would have to be very jaded indeed not to get great enjoyment from it or to look forward to what he may do next. This is his second disc, the first one being the very challenging Six Sonatas for Solo Violin by Eugène Ysaÿe, so he is a young man, not afraid of a challenge.

Copyright © 12 May 2023 Geoff Pearce,
Sydney, Australia



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