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Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35 (1878) [35:28]
Sérénade mélancolique, Op. 26 (1875) [9:26]
Souvenir d’un lieu cher (orch. Glazunov), Op. 42 (1878) [16:32]
Valse-Scherzo, Op. 34 (1877) [5:41]
Ilya Kaler (violin)
Russian Philharmonic Orchestra/Dmitry Yablonsky
rec. 3-10 December, 2004, Studio 5, Russian State Television and Radio Company Kultura. DDD
NAXOS 8.557690 [67:08]

Talk about rotten luck. Naxos has had these performances in the can for a couple of years, and have just released them, hot on the heels of Julia Fischer’s recent Tchaikovsky disc on Pentatone, containing exactly the same programme. The only difference is that Kaler plays Tchaikovsky's Souvenir d’un lieu cher in Glazunov’s orchestration, while Fischer plays the original version for violin and piano.
I downloaded the Fischer recording from emusic almost immediately after its release, and should say that I agree with Ian Lace that hers is one of the best recordings of the Tchaikovsky concerto to have emerged in recent years. The only recent recording of this work that had engaged me more is Vadim Repin’s whirlwind account with Gergiev on Philips, coupled with an equally impressive performance of the Myaskovsky Violin Concerto.
I fear that in all the excitement over Fischer’s album, Kaler’s will be ignored, and that would be incredibly unfair because this disc is excellent in every way. In fact, Kaler’s account points up the only deficiency in Fischer’s account: a lack of variety to her tone. Kaler's performance is full of contrasts, as he colours the violin line with subtle shading, yet maintains a lyrical virility throughout. It is clear that he has lived with this concerto under his fingertips for many years and that he still finds much to enjoy and inspire in the familiar turns of phrase. There is an artless facility to his playing of the big tunes as in the opening statement of the first movement or in the gorgeous Canzonetta, and a sweetness of tone that is quite disarming. As the violin writing gets busier, Kaler and the orchestra tend to pick up the pace quite significantly, yet the rapid passages are dispatched with effortless brilliance. Kaler's first movement cadenza has plenty of character, freedom and precision. Cadenzas apart, Yablonsky and his orchestra lend sympathetic support. This performance is not so much a full-blooded flood of romanticism as a blossoming account of elegance as well as brilliance. It also wears it war-horse status lightly, impressing itself upon the listener by virtue of its freshness and natural feeling. It is a tremendously satisfying account and one that bears rehearing.
Similar comments apply to the remaining pieces on this album. The quality of the music, both in terms of its inspiration and emotional content, makes this programme apt and it is hard to understand why it is not more common. The Sérénade mélancolique is quite a rarity, but it deserves to be far more popular. It was in fact Tchaikovsky's first piece for solo violin, written to a commission from the great Leopold Auer. The violin's part is so full of longing and achingly beautiful that it is almost a vocalise. There are striking effects of orchestration too, with some magical woodwind interplay underpinning the sighing of the violin.
The Souvenir is, if anything, even more engaging. The first of its three movements was initially intended as the second movement of the violin concerto, with the spakling scherzo and intimate melodie added later. The dark romanticism of Glazunov's orchestration is entirely idiomatic and Kaler's playing is sweet toned and brightly coloured. The little Valse-Scherzo that closes the disc makes an excellent encore and Kaler plays it with gusto.
Microphone placement favours Kaler throughout, but this is generally not overly problematic except for the first movement of the Souvenir where Kaler's breathing is a little distracting. Keith Anderson's liner-notes are up to his usual high standard.
If you are in the market for a new recording of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto this year, have a listen to this one before just buying Fischer’s. You may find, as I did, that you want both.
Tim Perry


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