TCHAIKOVSKY Violin Concerto. Rococo Variations
‘The violin is no longer played: it is tugged about, torn, beaten black and blue.’ Eduard Hanslick’s verdict on the premiere of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto has been cited as one of the great critical blunders. He accused the first movement of ‘vulgarity’, concluding that it was music that ‘stinks to the ear’. It’s music that requires great virtuosity and that’s precisely what it gets from the French-Serbian violinist Nemanja Radulović on this new disc from DG.
Magic is there from Radulović’s first phrase, floating on wings of fantasy as Sascha Goetzel pulls back the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic after their orchestral introduction, followed by a beguiling statement of the main theme. Radulović has a big, muscular tone, with a warm, grainy lower register, but it’s a clean sound without overcooking the vibrato. He indulges in teasing rubatos, almost straying beyond the musical line (track 1, 4'29"), hits the accelerator pedal hard (6'10") and scales dynamics dramatically (15'44") but it’s playing that’s got bags of personality. The cadenza is imaginatively executed, with tasteful use of portamento. Radulović imparts a true cantabile to the second-movement Canzonetta, while the finale is an exhilarating dance where only an awkward pause (track 3, 3'55") sounds a miscalculation.
Radulović is given strong support by the Borusan, not as lustrous in sound as the Berlin Staatskapelle accompanying Lisa Batiashvili, but they play with plenty of brio and Goetzel doesn’t pull the tempos around as much as Daniel Barenboim. The stringendo sprint at the close of the first movement is thrillingly paced. Woodwinds are well blended, possibly indulged too much in the finale, but Radulović is sympathetic in response. In recent years, I’ve enjoyed Esther Yoo’s recording the most (also on DG) but this one is rather more dangerous and pumped with adrenalin.
Only a few seconds after the concerto ends, we’re into the tentative question-and-response string opening to Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations. But what’s this? A piano providing the answers? Radulović commissioned this arrangement for viola, string ensemble and piano from Yvan Cassar and one has to question the point of it all. The piano replaces the woodwinds and sounds like an alien intruder. Radulović’s viola tone is just as firm and clean as on the violin, but when there are enough Tchaikovsky violin concertante pieces to amply pad out a CD – Ilya Kaler’s collection on Naxos is still my favourite – this is, at 52 minutes, disappointingly short measure.