As a fairly young person myself, I know the embarrassment of the recent past. I look back on things I said months ago and think them too cocky or self-assured; I read the reviews I sent to MusicWeb International two years ago and cringe in dismay at a writing style which has evolved since. For the young person still establishing her or his voice, the previous attempts to do so will be sources of much keen regret.
I mention this because in a couple years Ray Chen will really wish he could re-record the Tchaikovsky violin concerto. He’s still testing things out here, and he’s got a lot of it right, but there are moments where I felt regret on his behalf. The main problem, actually, is that Daniel Harding can’t bring the Swedish Radio Symphony to care much for these performances. The Tchaikovsky’s rather limp first movement is Exhibit A, more or less every note played by the woodwinds before Chen enters sounding totally affectless and uninvolved. Since these are also the first 60 seconds of the CD, that sleepy playing does not bode well. The flute solo at the end of the cadenza defines ‘perfunctory’.
Back to Ray Chen: he does have fantastic moments here. I love the poetry he brings to Tchaikovsky’s canzonetta, where the muted strings around him do sound lovely, and actually he excels all the way through Mendelssohn’s concerto. He obviously lacks no technical skill, his treatment of the Mendelssohn slow movement has great sensitivity, and his paths through both finales blaze with skill and energy. But there are also those occasional quirks and indulgences which give me pause: the first entry in the Tchaikovsky, for example, really saps what momentum Harding and his bored band conjured up; other violinists find ways to ham up this entrance without slowing down so noticeably - Vadim Gluzman, for one. Also in the Tchaikovsky, I briefly thought Chen was writing his own big cadenza, but then realized that, for whatever reason, he had just skipped a few bars.
If you’re less concerned with Chen’s career and more concerned with your own CD collection, ask: how many recordings of these concertos do you have? The Mendelssohn here is truly very good, but we also have readings by Cho-Liang Lin, Anne-Sophie Mutter, David Oistrakh, Jascha Heifetz, and more recently Daniel Hope to consider. The Tchaikovsky, with its lackluster orchestra and that cadenza blip, cedes pride of place to Gluzman, Julia Fischer, and James Ehnes in the last few years alone. Ray Chen is a really creditable talent who does a lot of good here, but I’m more interested in a remark of his online, that his favorite composer is Wieniawski. That’s a road less traveled, and one of my favorite composers too. How about convincing Sony to record the Wieniawski concertos and orchestral showpieces with a more committed, idiomatic band: the Warsaw Philharmonic and Antoni Wit? Then this talented violinist would have a calling card that stands out from everyone else’s.