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Ludwig Van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61 (1806) [44.01]
Max BRUCH (1838-1920)
Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26 (1866) [24.65]
Kyung-Wha Chung (violin); Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (Beethoven), London Philharmonic Orchestra (Bruch)/Klaus Tennstedt
rec. Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, 29-30 November, 1 December 1989 (Beethoven), No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London, 8-10 May 1990 (Bruch)
EMI CLASSICS 5034102 [69.57]

A worthy addition to the collection of any Romantic concerto enthusiast, with the Beethoven in particular ranking among the most enduring and sensitive performances.

This EMI Classics recording from 1989, remastered in 1998, is one of Chung’s only two collaborations with conductor Klaus Tennstedt, the other being the Bruch concerto - recorded a year later with the LPO. It was one of her first ventures as an EMI Classics recording artist, following a career peppered with prestigious collaborations and awards, and early recognition as a teenage prodigy in the Joachim tradition; Joachim being arguably the greatest proponent of both these works. One might expect a great deal, then, from her presentation of these classics, side by side with great cornerstone interpretations such as Menuhin’s soaring and playful Beethoven under Otto Klemperer (1966), or Perlman’s Bruch, recorded later in 1990 also with EMI.
I don’t think it’s an unfairly sweeping statement to say that Beethoven’s violin concerto is a difficult piece to grasp as a listener, and an even harder one to interpret as a performer. The enormously inflated first movement, and the consequent structural imbalance of the entire piece, hints at a struggle between Beethoven’s natural symphonic bent and the more modest proportions of the concerto form. This friction permeates the surface detail, and indeed the treatment of the violin line, which switches between melodic and accompanimental presentation over extended periods of time. The main challenge for the violinist, then, is to create an appropriate balance between intensity and restraint throughout the whole work; a challenge I feel that Kyung-Wha Chung rises to and surmounts in magnificent fashion.
After an elegant and restrained orchestral first movement ritornello, laying down the red carpet for the awaited soloist with great anticipation, Chung immediately establishes the tone of sweetness and exuberant energy which will carry through her entire performance. Soaring melodies and string-crossing accompanimental figures alike are carried off with a delightful ease and fluency, effortlessly entering into a balanced dialogue with the orchestra and receding from the limelight when appropriate. Chung and Tennstedt’s approach to this problematic movement seems to be to underline the surface contrasts of first and second subject, of tutti versus a cappella solo line, and of lyrical melody versus transitional passage, through extraordinarily sensitive distinctions in expression and dynamic. This thereby creates manageable, comprehensible patterns of anticipation and return which guide the listener through the 25-minute Allegro’s elaborate structure. A particular delight for me was the wonderful placidity and stillness of the passage directly preceding the dramatic tutti recapitulation.
The Larghetto presents its own interpretative problems, arising, in fact, from the relative lack of ‘showy’ or virtuosic passagework which often characterises a slow movement variations structure. Due also to the extreme tonal simplicity – often immobility – of the movement, Chung here really has her work cut out, wringing every drop from the comparatively unmemorable theme. Tennstedt clearly treats the Larghetto very much as a section of ‘calm before the storm’, which actually brings me to my one quibble with this performance; the distinct absence of ‘storm’ in the Allegro energico, here more of a bouncy Allegretto. The impact of the segue straight into the new tempo is thereby reduced, and the grandiose fortissimo chords which precede the transition are never quite musically balanced out. The unbridled, peasant-like jubilation of the Rondo theme in its second tutti iteration is also slightly muted by the restrained tempo.
Chung’s humorous, gypsy flair amply compensates, however, reaching its peak in the fiendish double-stopped Kreisler cadenza which she carries off in style. This recording is a profound improvement in every sense on her 1979 recording with the Vienna Philharmonic and Kondrashin, and well worth the price of the CD alone.
I was admittedly slightly less affected by Chung’s Bruch – a towering Romantic classic and a staple of the virtuoso violin repertoire. Written in 1864, it was in many ways a relatively adventurous and ground-breaking opus, particularly by comparison with Bruch’s later, often less sophisticated works. As opposed to its CD partner, this concerto is almost entirely focused around the showcasing of the solo instrument, with the orchestra adopting either a backing or ‘echo’ role.
The first movement, surprisingly entitled ‘Vorspiel’ (or ‘prelude’), opens with a deliciously hushed motif in the woodwind, taken up almost immediately by the soloist in a pensive and exploratory rising arpeggio. Chung’s opening is full of suspense and stillness. I had a slight sense that this opening promise was lost, however, in the ‘tutti’ expository passage, where technical considerations occasionally interfered with an overall expressiveness of line. Chung’s first movement is certainly dramatic, but without the depth of sonority or the sheer physical strength of Perlman’s Bruch (also with the LPO) recorded later in the same year. Perhaps wishing to do credit to the movement’s introductory designation, and throw the weight onto the latter two movements, Tennstedt seems to restrain the accompanying orchestra and repress its full sonority through much of this movement; a wise approach, perhaps, but one which does not always marry with Chung’s nervous and almost overwrought tone. In my opinion, the Vorspiel carries much of the thematic force and variety of a full-blown first movement; its proportions balance the other two movements amply, and it has little of the ‘feel’ of a mere prelude. This performance, therefore, whilst academically viable, doesn’t quite seem to satisfy in terms of sheer grit and commitment.
The Adagio – the emotional core of the concerto – is renowned for its ecstatic, quasi-vocal melody line, which Chung fully endows with her glistening tone, maintaining a tight and constant vibrato even at the final pianissimo. I’m even tempted to say that I found this at times rather sickly-sweet, but that may be more a reaction to the material than the performance! I was rather surprised, on the other hand, to detect slight but distinct issues of ensemble between soloist and orchestra, which numerous listenings have failed to dispel. Especially at moments of soloistic rubato, or slight expressive pauses, the orchestra tended to anticipate the solo line.
At the risk of splitting hairs, my issues with the final movement lay principally at the soloist’s door. Chung seemed to sacrifice a certain rhythmic precision in the initial double-stopped theme, to the extent that a listener unfamiliar with the score might be unable to distinguish Bruch’s original intentions. The more challenging of the double-stopped passages were occasionally shaky in intonation, and Chung’s entry in the second subject (following a full-blooded orchestral rendition) was glissando-filled and swollen in sonority. Having said this, I really am nit-picking small imperfections in a performance that is certainly jam-packed with artistic merit, if not one of the all-time greats.
This CD would make a worthy addition to the collection of any Romantic concerto enthusiast, with the Beethoven in particular ranking among the most enduring and sensitive performances I have had the pleasure to come across.
Ursula Sagar


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