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SHCHEDRIN: Concerto Cantabile;
: Violin Concerto in D;
: Serenade melancolique

Maxim Vengerov (violin)/London Symphony Orchestra/Mstislav Rostropovich
EMI CDC (7243 outside of UK; PM 518 in France) 5 56966 2 [60' 51"]
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Rodion Shchedrin (born 1932 in Moscow) - prolific composer, excellent pianist and collector of indigenous-folksong - wrote Concerto Cantabile for Vengerov in 1998. It's a 30-minute piece for violin and string orchestra, a big 15-minute first movement counterbalanced by two linked movements totalling a similar length. Intense and soulful, with evolving melodic lines, the music contrasts emotional and animated sections with reveries of reminiscence. Often eloquent and deeply-felt, intimacies of thought and memories of childhood (at the close the soloist is required to imitate a shepherd's pipe - an indelible memory from Shchedrin's earliest remembrance) are interwoven with more public outbursts of emotion. An engaging, ever-changing rhythmic profile informs the second movement, the soloist alternating bowed and pizzicato notes over cello and double bass ostinati. A cadenza is suggested (from 4'42", track 2) but the music appears to head for catastrophe before the last movement's cry of pain from massed strings establishes some sort of troubled consolation that leads to "shepherd's (sic: shepherds'?) tunes floating across the river". I find more in Concerto Cantabile each time I listen to it. I had thought it too long but am not so sure now. It's often a very beautiful piece, quite personal. Is there a sub-text? Shchedrin might well be offering a commentary on life today (as he sees it - intermingled with nostalgia). But there's always tomorrow and I think Shchedrin proposes uncertainty at the work's close. This music grows in stature with repeated listening.

There is a caveat though about Vengerov being so closely balanced. His playing, of course, can withstand the auditory spotlight (and the LSO strings are faithfully captured - they are very fine under Rostropovich's sympathetic leadership) but I grew somewhat weary with the explicit presentation that allows Vengerov to dominate the full string band unnaturally. I don't think Shchedrin's music is harmed - though I would like to hear a more intimate rendering, one better balanced - but the recording does harm the Stravinsky. Put simply, Vengerov is too close. Although some orchestral instruments are consciously highlighted in the sound-blend, others are not. The result loses sight of Stravinsky's carefully constructed musical line. Dialogue between the violin and orchestral instruments (and between orchestral instruments themselves) is not as clear as it should be. There are times when Vengerov should not be as audible as he is, the ear is distracted to him when it should be concentrating on more important things in the orchestra. This is a piece of music we're talking about, not an empty exercise in virtuosic display. I grew very tired of only being able to hear Vengerov and those instruments selected by the recording team. In any case, Vengerov's often over-wrought account of the solo part is equally tiresome as he squeezes as much emotional juice out of every phrase as he can. In short, I find Vengerov's inflation of the solo part (exacerbated by the forward balance) foreign to Stravinsky's neo-classical creation. Of course, the music has a heart, and this is more subtly and truthfully bespoken by Viktoria Mullova (Philips, with Bartok's Second Concerto, Salonen conducting). Vengerov's most devoted admirers will probably disagree with my assessment (incidentally, I do think him an outstanding player) but Stravinsky's music must come first.

The first couple of minutes of the Tchaikovsky offer balm to the ear: hushed, confidential, smoky-toned playing absolutely at one with the music, an identification shared by Rostropovich, but in the more animated middle section the balance reduces Vengerov to shouting the music. Does he insist on this forward projection? If so someone should have a word with him - a quiet one.

How to assess this CD? I can certainly recommend the Shchedrin. It's the only recording and there might not be another for some time. It's a fine piece too, and if you have my initially negative reaction (mine at the UK premiere with these artists just before the recording was made) then this is an invaluable release to get to know the music better. I'm disappointed with the Stravinsky, while the Tchaikovsky, recording aside, is wonderful. Vengerov's most devoted followers will buy this CD anyway (please get Mullova's Stravinsky as well!). However, I would caution against the notion that if it's Vengerov it must be great and better than anyone else (which appears to be the consensus view at present). With Mullova, Shaham and Repin around (I haven't forgotten Mutter but she, like Vengerov, tends to draw attention away from the music) such idolatry is dangerous. And no following markings - this CD demands words not stars!


Colin Anderson


Colin Anderson

Reviews from previous months

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