Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto (CD review)
To have produced just one thing of lasting importance, significance, or beauty, something people would cherish or remember for ages to come, seems to me a remarkable achievement, a thing most of us would never accomplish in a lifetime. Yet there are those people who have done just that and more--in science, in politics, in art, in literature, and in music. For Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) to have written only his Violin Concerto would have been impressive enough, yet he wrote at least a dozen more things equally well known and well loved by practically everyone in the world. And remarkable still, the man was never fully confident or fully satisfied about any of them. Temperamental genius is better than no genius at all, I suppose.
Tchaikovsky penned his Violin Concerto in D, Op. 35, in 1878, but because of his usual thin-skinned disposition he postponed premiering it for another three years before feeling assured enough to present it to the public. Needless to say, it's been a staple of the basic classical repertoire ever since.
Canadian violinist James Ehnes and pianist/conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy with the Sydney Symphony begin the concerto with the Allegro moderato taken at a truly moderate rather than breakneck pace; nevertheless, it is graceful and airy, too, with wonderful breadth and charm. Ashkenazy provides plenty of Tchaikovskian grandeur in the orchestral accompaniment and plenty of fluent luster as well. Ehnes plays with a light, firm, flowing touch, making this realization both lyrical and eloquent, an irresistible combination.
The central slow movement maintains the mood of the opening segment, with Ehnes emphasizing its vaguely Gypsy-like character. Both the soloist and the conductor seem of a mind to make this music well judged, neither too melancholy nor too nostalgic. Then it slides abruptly into a whirlwind finale in which Ehnes demonstrates all his virtuosity, closing out a scintillating and highly rewarding performance.
While all three of the disc's companion pieces are lovely, it is the Souvenir d'un lieu cher, a trio of pieces for violin and piano, that stands out. With Ashkenazy on piano accompanying Ehnes, the music is haunting and enchanting. Divided, as I say, into three segments--slow, fast, slow--the concluding Melodie is perhaps the most fetching of all, and the partnership of Ehnes and Ashkenazy proves most pleasurable. Interestingly, it's the melodic quality of this music that most resembles the Violin Concerto, which is perhaps why I find it so enjoyable.
Recorded at the Sydney Opera House in December, 2010, the sound struck me as exceptionally well balanced between soloist and orchestra, with the soloist out in front but not so much that he is in our face. The orchestra displays plenty of depth behind him, with more than adequate dynamic range and impact. There is a pleasing sense of air and transparency around all of the instruments, too, and a minimal degree of apparent postproduction manipulation by the engineers. In short, this is an especially natural-sounding recording, complementing an especially thoughtful interpretation.
William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer
Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.
The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.