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Arabella Steinbacher with the BSO

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Beethoven, Violin Concerto, A. Steinbacher, WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln, A. Nelsons
Arabella Steinbacher has been on our radar for several years, but we have not had many chances to hear her live in the Washington area. The German violinist, another product of Ana Chumachenko's studio in Munich, made her debut with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra this week, in a tried-and-true favorite, Beethoven's violin concerto (in just the last few years, Stefan Jackiw and Julia Fischer have played it with the BSO), which we heard on Thursday night at Strathmore. Another Munich native, conductor Jun Märkl, was at the podium, and the combination had some interesting results, if not optimal ones.

The Beethoven concerto, the warhorse of warhorses, is such a beautifully crafted piece of music that it can survive performances with far fewer admirable qualities than all those that Steinbacher brought to it. At the same time, to distinguish oneself in this piece, at least to someone who has heard it performed so many times live and on disc, is a tall order. In the crucial opening theme of the solo part, Steinbacher displayed a scrumptious tone, a clear thread of sound that carried exceptionally well in the hall, but the intonation was not always as true as it could have been, a problem that persisted throughout the performance, never excruciating but off just enough to raise an eyebrow. She had a broad sense of rubato with many of the slower themes, but oddly when she hit the sections of more active figuration, her playing became more wooden and automatic, almost as if she were forgetting to make musical lines out of it. Her rendition of the first-movement cadenza was formidable technically, but again the polyphonic lines did not sing musically as much as they could have.

Märkl and the BSO musicians gave her a beautiful envelope of sound to play in, adding mutes in the slow movement to produce a diaphanous halo around Steinbacher (with the strings already in reduced numbers) and producing a captivating, soft pizzicato accompaniment toward the end. The orchestral playing was sensitive, although there were some embarrassing burps in the horns here and there. Märkl was at his best in slow, lyrical sections, where he gave the players freedom to shape the line, but he tended towards over-agitation in the fast passages, his beat becoming a little unclear, with unsettled results. Steinbacher's best moment came in a welcome encore, an astounding performance of Fritz Kreisler's Recitativo and Scherzo, distinguished by a raw power on the G string of her Stradivarius (the "Booth" violin, made by Stradivari in 1716 and loaned by the Nippon Music Foundation) and jaw-dropping off-string technique. Based on this appearance, we hope Steinbacher's next Washington appearance will be in a recital rather than with an orchestra.

Other Reviews:

Joe Banno, BSO at Strathmore: A captivating self-contained drama (Washington Post, April 28, 2012)

Tim Smith, BSO welcomes Jun Markl, Arabella Steinbacher for all-German program (Baltimore Sun, April 27, 2012)

Marie Gullard, BSO welcomes violinist Arabella Steinbacher to Strathmore (Washington Examiner, April 25, 2012)

Michael Lodico, Encounter with Stradivari: Châteauville Foundation’s 10th Anniversary (Ionarts, October 10, 2007)

Andrew Lindemann Malone, Arabella Steinbacher's Room-Filling Sound (Washington Post, October 20, 2005)

Jens F. Laurson, More Talent to Discover (Ionarts, October 10, 2005)
Märkl's hyperactive tendencies had similar effects in the other selections, Weber's overture to Euryanthe and Schumann's third symphony ("Rhenish"). In the Weber, Märkl went for too big an effect in the fast tempos, catching the violins a little off-guard at the start, for example. The lush violin divisi semi-section in the ghosts passage, however, had a radiant effect. (This opera, which tells a story out of German knightly legend not unlike that of Wagner's Lohengrin, and Weber's Oberon are on my wish list for you, Washington Concert Opera.)

The Schumann benefited in some ways from Märkl's brashness, making for a forceful, pointed first movement, with all of those duple-triple shifts handled adroitly. The second-movement scherzo had a pleasing lilt, but again an impetuous tempo made for some sloppy bits here and there and not just from the violins. The third movement was the high point, with the musicians and Märkl sounding right in synch, producing the most graceful string playing of the night, unfortunately with a few more burbles in the horns. A balanced brass opening to the fourth movement set the right sense of tension, with a contrapuntal tribute to Bach running through it, and the fifth had a jovial, Haydnesque quality, with Märkl making the most of the loud-soft contrasts. The "Rhenish" is a bittersweet work, an enthusiastic portrait of the Rhine river from the early days of Schumann's tragic tenure as music director in Düsseldorf, but it is hard to forget that it is the same body of water in which the composer attempted to end his life only four years later.

This concert repeats only once more, this evening (April 28, 8 pm), at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore.

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