Tchaikovsky: Complete Works for Violin and Orchestra (CD review)

Jennifer Koh, violin; Alexander Vedernikov, Odense Symphony Orchestra. Cedille 90000 166.

To begin, there's the matter of this Tchaikovsky album's title, "Complete Works for Violin and Orchestra." It sounds pretty impressive and should cover a wide range of pieces, possibly a box set. The fact is, though, Tchaikovsky wrote only three works for violin and orchestra and a fourth orchestrated by Alexander Glazunov. So a single disc contains seventy-four minutes of music. Fortunately, my second point more than makes up for any possible overstatement in the title: American violinist Jennifer Koh, Alexander Vedernikov, and the Odense Symphony do a fine job executing these works, and the Cedille engineers do their usual splendid job recording them. While it may not be an earthshaking release, the album makes for a rewarding listening experience.

The Cedille team have arranged the pieces in chronological order on the disc, but I'll start with the most-popular among them first, the Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35, written by Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) in 1878. He wrote it just after the dissolution of a calamitous marriage and while carrying on a relationship with his pupil, violinist Iosif Kotek. The composer even wanted to dedicate the piece to Kotek but felt such a measure would put an undue strain on public gossip. In any case, the premiere took place in 1881, and what we consider one of the mainstays of the classical repertoire these days met with a mixed reaction at the time.

Jennifer Koh
Whatever, as good as she is, Ms. Koh never quite answers the question of whether we needed yet another recording of it. Koh displays her technical prowess throughout, while maintaining a sensitive atmosphere. It's a good juggling act, providing all the pyrotechnics needed and at the same time conveying the work's slightly melancholy mood. Of course, there are times when you may want her to just get on with it, as she does tend to linger over details quite a bit. So, for example, the first movement doesn't have quite the forward momentum or sense of sentimental urgency voiced by, say, Jascha Heifetz (RCA or JVC) or the young Itzhak Perlman (Chesky). Still, Ms. Koh plays the second-movement Canzonetta: Andante movingly (if, again, rather slowly), and she adds a note of rollicking boisterousness to the finale that helps toward relieving some of the mournfulness of the preceding movement. And, perhaps most important, Ms. Koh always sustains a graceful, elegant air. Under Ms. Koh and Maestro Vedernikov, the music conveys a healthy dose of Romanticism, combining polish, athleticism, and passion in equal measure. The fact that it also contains perhaps more stops and starts, more changes of direction, than probably any other interpretation is something the listener lives with. You get used to it.

The other works on the disc appeared to me more immediately pleasing: the little Serenade melancolique, Op. 26, and Valse-Scherzo, Op. 34; and the longer, three-movement Souvenir d'un lieu cher, Op. 42, the one orchestrated by Glazunov. Here, Ms. Koh's melding of overt Romanticism with effortless efficiency seemed well and appropriately executed. The Serenade is tender and affectionate without being too weepy; the Valse-Scherzo is ideal for showing off Ms. Koh's virtuosic brilliance; and the Souvenir is poignant, rhapsodic, wistful, and pointed by turns, with an especially frolicsome central scherzo.

Producer Judith Sherman and session engineer Viggo Mangor, along with post-production engineer Bill Maylone and editing assistant Jeanne Velonis, recorded the music at the Odense Concert House's Carl Nielsen Hall, Odense, Denmark in September 2015.

The sound is about as near perfect as it can be in these works, with excellent tonal balance, instrumental balance, orchestral depth, clarity, and definition. What's more, the engineers have positioned the violin ideally in relation to the other instruments and captured it in a most-natural manner, never bright, forward, or steely. With good dynamics and frequency range, the recording is probably the best we currently have for this music, so if you're just looking for sound, this might be a good choice.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow:


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa