While it’s true that not every great violin is a Stradivarius, and not every Stradivarius is truly great, it is also true that it was in Antonio Stradivari’s Cremonese workshop that during the first third of the 18th century – and in particular during his ‘golden period’ from around 1700 to 1720 – violin-making reached an alchemical zenith of craftsmanship, power and tone-production that remains unmatched to this day.
Of the greatest of the 750 or so Stradivari violins that survive, some are still travelling the world in the hands of artists, while others are preserved under lock and key. So for historic string dealers J&A Beare not only to have gathered together 12 of the finest in one place but also to have kept them together for two weeks, in order that Janine Jansen could explore their separate qualities and then record a 15-strong programme to showcase them with her old friend Antonio Pappano, will have constituted an endeavour almost as superhuman as the crafting of the instruments in the first place. Consider also that this is the first time Jansen has recorded in a solo capacity since she and Pappano gave us their magnificent Brahms and Bartók Violin Concertos (1/16), and this album gives us much to be grateful for.
Equally superhuman is what Jansen has drawn from the 12 instruments over her allotted fortnight, especially as Strads aren’t always known for hurrying to reveal the intricacies of their personalities. Inevitably there’s endless potential for forensic listening. I’ve found myself hopping back and forth, listening in for each instrument’s individual sound and very much appreciating Jansen’s matchmaking. Take the way her red-blooded central climax in Suk’s ‘Love Song’ showcases the sheer volume and tonal quality of the famous 1715 ‘Alard’; and Pappano is with her heart and soul, as he is across the programme.
It’s been equally irresistible to hop between recordings, and it’s rather spooky to hear first Kreisler and then Jansen play Kreisler’s Liebesleid on the 1733 instrument on which he made his best-known recordings. Their respective first notes so audibly display the same colours, even though Jansen’s reading is thoroughly her own.
Another personal favourite is the Andante third movement of Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata, for which Jansen is on the 1716 Strad used by Milstein as his primary instrument from 1945 until his death. Few violinists can cast a tender, long-lined pianissimo spell quite like Jansen, and heard through the warmth, power and clarity of this particular instrument, it’s absolutely exquisite. Also on the bill is Jansen’s own current main concert instrument: a 1715 Strad previously used by Pierre Rode and Oscar Shumsky, whose two appearances include a reading of Lensky’s aria from Tchaikovsky’s Onegin that’s had me rooted to the spot on each fresh hearing: the endless, constantly growing and changing lines; the range of colours from cloaked to clear, and from rich dark warmth to silvery ethereal upper-register whispers; the sheer technical command required to achieve all of this if you stop to think about it; but, most of all, the heart-piercing passion of Jansen’s song.
And that’s the bottom line. Yes, there’s plenty here to keep violin geeks engrossed for hours. But ultimately it’s the violinist that maketh the violin, and what emerges from this comparative listening odyssey across some of the world’s greatest masterpieces in sound production is simply an even richer love and admiration for Jansen’s own artistry. Not only that, but the album is also a beautiful testament to her very special musical friendship with Pappano.
Author: Charlotte Gardner