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.
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: