Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto (CD review)

Also, Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto. Ray Chen, violin; Daniel Harding, Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. Sony Classical 88697984102.

Taiwanese-Australian violinist Ray Chen tells us he chose the Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn concertos on the disc because "Maybe I bring something new and fresh to them." Fair enough. Both of the concertos have played major roles in the young man's career. In 2008 he won the Yehudi Menuhin Competition with the Mendelssohn work, and a year later he won first prize in the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels with the Tchaikovsky piece. When you've got that kind of success going for you, you do what you do best.

I suppose the question about any new recording is whether it competes with or surpasses old favorites; and when it comes to warhorses like the Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn, there are many great recordings out there already from the likes of Perlman (Chesky and EMI), Heifetz (RCA), Chung (Decca), Gluzman (BIS), Repin (Philips), Mutter (DG), Zukerman (Sony), Chee-Yun (Denon), Chang (EMI), Milstein (DG), and a host of others. So, is any newcomer worth the listen? In the case of Ray Chen, sure thing, and just the coupling of two such important concertos should be icing on the cake.

Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) wrote his Concerto for violin and Orchestra in D major, Op. 35 in 1778, premiering it several years later because the person he originally wanted to perform its first public appearance deemed it unplayable. Although one generally hears it in a big, Technicolor production, in Ray Chen's hands it comes off more smoothly and effortlessly than most others, Chen demonstrating a clean tone and a quietly virtuosic style. While his reading is more relaxed than weighty or dramatic, the playing is never lax. In other words, it's a more lyrical approach than we often find. The Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Harding, on the other hand, is more hell bent for leather than the soloist is. Not that the styles clash, however; if anything, we get two performances for the price of one.

Chen plays a 1721 "Macmillan" Stradivarius on loan to him. In an understatement that, given his playing, seems typical of the man's mode of expression, he says of it, "You need good tools." Yes, to say the least.

At one point during the central Canzonetta, I could have sworn that Chen's violin was singing, literally producing vocal sounds, and for the briefest split second I wondered if Sony had decided to add voice to the arrangement. This was before I realized it was the "song" of the violin. It was a remarkable moment in a remarkably tranquil reading of a piece that can often come off as bombastic.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) wrote his Concerto for violin and orchestra in E minor, Op. 64 in 1844, and if you still aren't sure of Chen's talents, it's in the Mendelssohn that his gifts really shine. His penchant for creating serene moods is on full display in the opening movement, with Mendelssohn's music practically dancing off the bow. Not that Chen doesn't whip up an exciting head of steam, too, but it's in those magical Mendelssohnian interludes that he proves his worth. The Andante is meltingly beautiful, the finale as sprightly as pixie dust in the breeze.

Recorded in the Berwaldhallen, Stockholm, Sweden, in April of 2011, the sound is warm yet nicely delineated, if without ultimate transparency. There is a very wide dynamic range involved and a good balance between the soloist and the orchestra as well as within the frequency spectrum of the orchestra itself, with no parts of the reproduction dominating the others. The miking is not too close, not too distant, yet close enough to obtain good, refined detail and strong impact. While the orchestral depth is only average, the overall sonics are spacious and resonant. No complaints here.


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