Nemanja Radulović: Baïka
'Baïka’ is the French transliteration of the Serbian ‘bajka’, meaning ‘tales’. It is the title of the Franco-Serbian violinist Nemanja Radulović’s latest album, which spins stories from Khachaturian’s Armenia, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Baghdad and Aleksandar Sedlar’s Black Sea, even though only one of the works is vaguely programmatic.
Vulgar. Brash. Stale. Aram Khachaturian’s music has been the frequent target for criticism over the decades. It’s often music painted in bold primary colours but I find its rhythmic drive, broad brushstrokes and sheer exuberance highly infectious, especially the 1940 Violin Concerto, which constitutes the main work on this disc. Immediately one notes the bite of the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic under Sascha Goetzel and Radulović’s gritty tone as he digs into the five-note opening motif. However, this is no power drive through the concerto. Radulović can be aggressive, with plenty of fire in his double-stopping, but he never pushes the dynamics too hard – where the score is marked mezzo-forte, he plays mezzo-forte – and finds more poetry in this concerto than its critics give it credit.
In the first movement, he plays David Oistrakh’s cadenza, ‘more brilliant violinistically’, according to the dedicatee’s son, Igor. This bucks something of a trend – Julia Fischer, Sergey Khachatryan and James Ehnes have all recorded Khachaturian’s original cadenza. Radulovic´ dispatches it with energy and firepower, and the coda is exhilarating.`
The Andante sostenuto second movement has the quality of an Armenian lullaby, Radulović playing the mute section (track 2, 7'51") with whispered, papery-thin tone, while the finale is taken at an invigorating tempo. Oistrakh’s recording with the composer conducting the Philharmonia is indispensable but Radulovic´ and Goetzel take the palm as my favourite modern rendition.
The couplings are imaginatively chosen. Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestral warhorse Sheherazade is arranged by Aleksandar Sedlar for Radulović and his piano-and-string ensemble Double Sens. It’s an affectionate tribute, cutting the score to half its original length, solo violin playing not just Sheherazade’s lines but also various woodwind themes. It’s mostly tasteful, although one episode whirls off into something approaching a Viennese waltz at one incongruous point in the third movement (track 6, 3'25").
Khachaturian’s Trio for clarinet, violin and piano has little serious competition on disc (although, curiously enough, the Zurich Ensemble also programme it alongside a chamber version of Sheherazade). Andreas Ottensamer is the beguiling clarinettist, weaving sinuous arabesques with Radulović, while Laure Favre-Kahn caresses the allargando e espressivo lines in the middle movement nicely. After a slinky clarinet solo, the finale imitates Armenian folk dance, most persuasively performed here.
There is a fun Sedlar encore: Savcho 3, a transcription of a movement from a saxophone concerto. Via streaming, you also get Sedlar’s Turkey, both works featuring rollicking rhythms and swooning violin. With Nemanja Radulović as narrator, this is an album with entrancing tales to tell.