Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op.35 (1879) [36.06]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Violin Concerto in E minor, Op.64 (1844) [27.44]
Ray Chen (violin)
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Harding rec. Berwaldhallen, Stockholm, 4-9 April 2011
SONY 88697984102 [63.50]
There are quite a few couplings of these same two concertos in the catalogue; I myself have the CD recorded in 1982 by Kyung-Wha Chung and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra under Charles Dutoit. This is currently available as a Decca twofer with the addition of the Beethoven and Sibelius concertos. That recording has been used as a comparison throughout this review.

The opening of the Mendelssohn concerto begins with a tremolo on the violins over which the soloist enters immediately with a soaring cantilena. Underpinning this tremolo there is a rhythm on pizzicato strings which Mendelssohn clearly intended to be heard – it sets the basic tempo and gives impetus to the score – because he doubled it with soft timpani strokes to make certain it registered. Here this is very far back in the sound-picture, and the opening of the movement therefore sounds more amorphous and rhapsodic than it should. Hugh Wolff’s performance with Hilary Hahn and the Oslo Philharmonic recognises the importance of this, although Jan Krenz gets the point well also in his recording with Arthur Grumiaux and the New Philharmonia. When compared to Chen, Chung brings rather more light and shade to her opening phrases, with more sense of give and take with the orchestra. After that Chen is perfectly fine, giving a forthright performance; but although his reading is technically irreproachable, there is more romantic fervour to be found in Mendelssohn’s concerto than is present in this very straight and classical interpretation.
Similarly with the Tchaikovsky there is a certain lack of romantic passion in Chen and Harding’s reading of the first movement, and the polacca rhythms sound just a bit too mechanical; it is not until the slow movement that Chen gets the bit between his teeth with a real injection of Slavonic soul. Again there is nothing wrong with his performance to which one can point and say “This or that could be done better”. However one does get an impression that this recording is one that has been made to display Chen’s performance as it exists at present and at a very early stage in his career. Nothing has been done to look afresh at the score and present something that is sufficiently different to justify yet another recording of either of these long-established warhorses. After all there is a very great deal of competition.
There are not so many recordings of this exact coupling in the catalogue – the Mendelssohn always seems to find itself teamed with the first Bruch concerto – but Chung’s performance strikes me as preferable in sufficient ways to give it a slight edge. A later version of the same coupling from Sayaka Shoji on DG suffers from orchestral playing that is sometimes rather less than tidy and rather tubby orchestral sound - at least as recorded - and the Mendelssohn suffers from a disagreement about the tempo between soloist and conductor in the opening bars, where the soloist slows the tempo immediately upon her entry.
And then for a real performance which gives all the romantic passion one could want: Grumiaux’s performances are something else if you can tolerate analogue sound - albeit of vintage quality. These are available on a Philips duo - in addition to the Mendelssohn and the Tchaikovsky you also get the Beethoven and Brahms concertos - for about the same price as this single CD. One the other hand if you want the Chung performance in digital sound with its additional couplings on the Decca twofer - again at about the same price, although her recording of the Tchaikovsky with Dutoit has been replaced by her earlier and slightly rougher analogue recording with Previn - be warned that the Vienna Philharmonic sound in the Beethoven is a bit acidic. If you have enjoyed Chen in live performance, though, these performances will be the only ones that will suffice.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
Technically irreproachable but more romantic fervour is called for.