Tchaikovsky Treasures (SACD review)

Violin Concerto. Also, Serenade melancolique; Valse Scherzo; ballet and opera excerpts. Guy Braunstein, violin; Kirill Karabits, BBC Symphony Orchestra. Pentatone PTC 5186 747.

We probably didn't need yet another recording of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto. Practically every concert violinist in the world has already done it, and the catalogue is brimming with excellent choices. However, it's the couplings on this disc that are intriguing: the "Pas de deux" from Swan Lake; Lensky's aria and the "Letter Scene" from Eugene Onegin; Serenade melancolique; and Valse Scherzo. More important, violinist Guy Braunstein gives us his own arrangements of several items. The back cover says, "Inspired by greats such as Sarasate, Heifetz, Kreisler and Joachim, violinist Guy Braunstein reanimates a tradition of violin and orchestra rhapsodies with new arrangements of famous excerpts from Swan Lake and Eugene Onegin." Whatever, it makes what might have been just another album of Tchaikovsky music into something a little more special.

If you remember, Braunstein (b. 1971) was the concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic for over a dozen years, leaving that position to pursue a solo career in 2013. Several years ago I reviewed his recording of the Bruch Violin Concerto and Scottish Fantasy and found them both quite charming, so it was with a good degree of optimistic anticipation that I came to the present Tchaikovsky disc. I cannot say I was disappointed.

First up on the program is the aforementioned Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35, which Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) wrote in 1878 during the time he was trying to recover from a bout of depression. Critics of the day found the concerto wanting, one of them even saying that it sounded "long and pretentious" and that it "brought us face to face with the revolting thought that music can exist which stinks to the ear." Thank goodness for the passage of time and the eventual validation of the work as a classic of the repertoire.

Guy Braunstein
As with most concertos, Tchaikovsky's begins with an Allegro, in this case taken at a moderate tempo, followed by a slow Andante and then, without a break, a spirited Allegro vivacissimo. Braunstein does as well with the piece as anybody, which should come as no surprise. You don't become the concertmaster of one of the world's leading orchestras unless you have a ton of talent, and you don't quit the post to become a soloist unless you have a ton of confidence. Braunstein has both--talent and confidence--and they pay off in the Tchaikovsky.

Braunstein takes the solo part in fine, virtuosic fashion, without overdoing or exaggerating what by now is familiar territory. The temptation was there, I'm sure, for Braunstein to try to make his interpretation notably different from all others, but he resists, relying instead on a fairly conventional reading. Yet it is not without its requisite Russian excitement and pathos; but maybe that's built into the score. It's a good, traditional reading of the music, as I say, even if I didn't hear as much sense of melancholy as I'd liked.

The couplings, cited above, are delightful, although I'm not sure prospective buyers will on their own be prompted to buy the disc just for the items accompanying the concerto. So it's a good thing the main attraction is as popular as it is and that  Braunstein handles it as well as he does. In any case, as I say, the couplings are appealing, and Braunstein's transcriptions of the ballet and opera excerpts are particularly worth the price of the disc. They're inventive enough to make old tunes new again.

Maestro Kirill Karabits and the BBC Symphony Orchestra provide excellent support for Mr. Braunstein, the orchestra sounding rich and resonant (thanks, in part, to the excellence of the recording); and the conductor keeping a fine balance between the orchestral and solo parts. Neither partner seems ever to upstage the other but complement one another admirably.

Producers Renaud Loranger and Justus Beyer and engineers Jean-Marie Geijsen and Andreas Wolf recorded the music at Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London in June 2018. They made it to play back in hybrid SACD multichannel or two-channel stereo or regular two-channel stereo if you haven't got an SACD player. I listened to the SACD two-channel layer using a Sony SACD machine.

Most noticeably good about the sound is its wide dynamic range. I know, some people don't like this because it means sometimes fiddling with the volume control while listening because of the contrasts between loud and soft passages. However, that's the way of live music; it can go from barely a whisper to very, very loud. So, if you're after the most natural sound possible, you welcome the wide dynamics. Next, you'll notice the impact is pretty good, too; solid, swift, and well delineated. After that, you'll probably salute the warm, detailed sonics and the pleasant bloom of the concert hall. The solo violin sounds lovely, too, and while it is well out in front of the orchestra, it is not so close as to be uncomfortably unrealistic. This is good, lifelike sound, making the music even better.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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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 Jon 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 of The $ensible Sound magazine 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 simpleminded, 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 Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. 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 cell phone. 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.

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.

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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