TCHAIKOVSKY; MENDELSSOHN Violin Concertos
Ray Chen, Gramophone’s One to Watch in February 2011, played these concertos at the Menuhin Competition in 2008 (Mendelssohn) and the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels in 2009 (Tchaikovsky). It’s easy to appreciate why he won first prize on both occasions. Magnificent technique, of course; the trickiest passages seem like child’s play to him. But what impresses most is Chen’s musicianship – he’s able to make the listener aware of the emotional import of each phrase, apparently spontaneously, as though he’s only just considered playing it that way. Take the way he plays the two principal themes in the first movement of the Tchaikovsky. Both recur several times, with different continuations, and on each occasion Chen is able to find a new tone colour, a different touch of subtle rubato. In his hands, the music is like a living thing; one senses that each performance will have its own individual character. In the finale of this concerto, he values musical character over sheer brilliance, showing a strong feeling for the drama of the solo introduction, phrasing the rondo theme in the most lively way and, later on, capturing the full character of the folk-inspired episodes while avoiding any grotesque exaggeration. Similarly, in the finale of the Mendelssohn, he embraces the music’s playfulness, its occasional moments of lyricism and the times when attack is needed. In the middle of the movement, when the orchestra takes the main theme, he’s happy to retire from the foreground and play a decorative role.
Chen also shows an impressive command of the larger musical paragraphs, as in the long melody that makes up the first part of the Mendelssohn’s Andante. In the preceding Allegro his command of the expressive arc of the lyrical second theme is just as enthralling, even though here he has to collaborate with the woodwind players, who share the melody.
In this passage, too, Chen introduces a number of the sort of portamentos that the work’s dedicatee, Ferdinand David, would have used to heighten the expressive effect. He does so discreetly and tastefully, and, I think, makes a strong case for the need to connect notes in this way, if the touching quality of the melody is to be fully brought out. Daniel Harding and his Swedish orchestra give magnificent support and the balance, while sounding entirely natural in its perspective, allows all the important solo lines to make their mark. A combination of fine playing and well-defined recording allows the varied timbres of the woodwind, horns and trumpets to make a particularly vivid impact. One is reminded more forcefully than usual that both concertos are the work of masters of orchestration; Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky delight in finding colourful and evocative settings for the soloist and a variety of ways of animating the musical dialogue. The overall sound is rich and well balanced, and there’s an infectious air of enthusiasm and commitment.
In the Mendelssohn, after Chen has completed his first short solo with two splendidly bold virtuoso flourishes, the full orchestra enters with inspiring enthusiasm, fully endorsing the composer’s Allegro molto appassionato. And the big central tutti in the Tchaikovsky’s first movement, where the lyrical main theme is transformed into a triumphal march, and which sometimes sounds disturbingly brash, emerges here as a natural culmination as the violins play with full-blooded romantic feeling. The balance between strings and wind, too, has been perfectly judged. Harding’s pacing of each movement is spot on – the two opening allegros, in particular, have a powerful cumulative vitality. As both these movements near their end, a staged increase in speed is indicated and here the collaboration between soloist and orchestra is exemplary, maintaining and gradually intensifying the momentum.
At this stage in his career, Ray Chen doesn’t offer the kind of interpretation that challenges traditional ways of playing the music. In the Tchaikovsky, for instance, though generally adhering to the composer’s text, he makes use of several of the familiar little embellishments, octave transpositions and variations that generations of violinists have liked to add. By contrast, James Ehnes’s recent recording, immaculately played and powerfully expressive, demonstrates how it’s quite unnecessary to change anything Tchaikovsky wrote. I’m happy, however, to trade textural purity for Chen’s delightful air of spontaneity, especially considering that Ehnes’s accompaniment (Ashkenazy and the Sydney Symphony) isn’t quite in the same league as Harding’s. Similarly, in the Mendelssohn, Christian Tetzlaff’s swift, light account is extremely persuasive, especially in the finale, and he demonstrates how effective the first-movement cadenza can be while still following exactly the composer’s markings – particularly the tempo indications. Chen, at this point, is content to follow the traditional modifications of tempo that are not shown in the score (though he does play all the high harmonics that Mendelssohn surely intended). But in this concerto, too, Chen’s warmly communicative manner is something to be treasured over interpretative correctness. All in all, a most impressive release.