These two concertos have illustrious recordings to their names,
past and present, but are not natural disc-mates. In fact I’m
struggling to remember a similar coupling. In any case, Valeriy
Sokolov in tandem with Virgin Classics, has decided to harness
them. The fine orchestral accompaniment comes from the Tonhalle
Orchestra, Zurich under David Zinman.
Sokolov has decided ideas about Tchaikovsky but these are not
outsize ones. In fact his approach is subtle, discreet and in
some ways quite small-scale. That certainly relates to his tone,
which is focused but not of much amplitude. It also concerns
his tempo choices, which are quite direct, and sparing of rubati.
His bowing is wristy and supple, unpressured and facile. He
doesn’t dig into the string, like Russian players of old,
but does cultivate a gracious and elegant legato phrasing. It’s
the kind of rather aerial playing that might appeal to those
sated by heavier, big-boned performances or those that rely
on metrical displacements to try to make ‘points’.
His first movement cadenza is up to tempo and though his playing
is hardly one to parade panache it is well-shaded and, in the
slow movement, effective without being at all effusive. The
Zurich winds are malleable here, the chordal framing marshalled
by Zinman being distinctive and a valuable adjunct to the soloist’s
performance. The orchestral patina is indeed carefully shaped,
too, and whilst the finale is hardly the last word in communicative
élan, it remains dignified and of a piece. The folkloric
drone passage is well realised however, so too the whistling
Paganinian harmonics. Detailing remains good, clarity too, albeit
at the cost of a degree of direct emotional engagement.
Bartók’s Concerto No.2 reflects this relatively
objectified stylistic approach quite clearly. There is a certain
reserve, and a reluctance to vary bow pressure and attack to
generate a wide colouristic palette. The consequence is a reading
of moderation, tonal unity and discretion. The elegance and
pathos of the slow movement - good dynamics all-round - is highlit
by Sokolov’s tight trills, whilst the forces catch the
more barbarous moments in the finale adeptly. There are times,
however, when Zinman seems more engaged than the soloist, and
this skewed perspective leads to an emotive battle between heat
and ice, rather than a congruent expressive approach.
Fine though the recording quality is, this qualified approach
to the two works means that one’s response must be somewhat