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The Golden Age
Erik SATIE (1866-1925)
Satiesfaction (Gymnopédie No.1, arr. Stephan Koncz, b.1984)  [4:31]
Fritz KREISLER (1875-1962)
Syncopation  [2:03]
Manuel PONCE (1882-1948)
Estrellita (arr. Jascha Heifetz)  [3:31]
Max BRUCH (1838-1920)
Violin Concerto No.1 in g minor, Op.26 [25:44]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Clair de lune (arr. Koncz) [Suite bergamasque, L.75]  [4:13]
Schön Rosmarin  [2:17]
George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Summertime / A Woman is a sometime thing (arr. Heifetz) [Porgy and Bess]  [1:55]
Cyril SCOTT (1879-1970)
Lotus Land (arr. Kreisler)  [5:09]
Waltzing Matilda (arr. Koncz)  [3:16]
Ray Chen (violin)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Robert Trevino (concerto)
Ray’s Quartet ‘Made in Berlin’
Julien Quentin (piano)
rec. 2017, Henry Wood Hall, London (concerto); Kulturkirche Nikodemus, Berlin
DECCA 4833852 [53:23]

I wonder what the title ‘Golden Age’ evokes in your mind? For me, it’s the classical legend of the first age of mankind when greed was unknown and before we descended into the Silver and Iron Ages. At the end of time the Age of Gold will be restored, and Astræa, the goddess of innocence and justice, will return to earth. It’s a regular theme of renaissance poetry and of baroque opera, though Ronsard used it rather cynically in addressing a poem on the subject to the treasurer of the French court and ending by asking for a pay rise. (Laumonier XII 87.) In another poem he excuses the love of money on the grounds that ‘Si l’argent nous défaut, nostre indigente main / Ne sçauroit rien donner aux pauvres morts de fain.’ (If we have no money, our beggarly hand couldn’t give anything to the poor who are dying from hunger.)

Shostakovich composed a ballet entitlted The Golden Age.  That was about a football team, but that’s not what Decca mean either; the title refers to the ‘golden age’ of arrangements by Kreisler and Heifetz, which open and close the programme, not a usage that I’ve come across before. At the heart of this recording, however, is a splendid performance of Bruch’s Violin Concerto No.1 from prize-winning violinist Ray Chen. Though Chen is hardly old enough to be credited with his own Golden Age, it’s at least as good as, or even better than the recent Sony recording with Joshua Bell as soloist and director of the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields (19075842002, with Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy).

So why is this not a Recording of the Month? Because overall I prefer the Sony as an all-Bruch experience, alongside the classic Kyung-Wha Chung account of the two Bruch works plus the Mendelssohn concerto on an earlier Decca recording (Legends 4609762, mid-price – see my review of the Bell). The new Decca album has no clear identity: is it a recording of the Bruch concerto with trimmings fore and aft or an album of music from the ‘Golden Age’ arrangements by Heifetz and Kreisler with the Bruch concerto thrown in for good measure. (And not exactly good measure, either, at 53 minutes for a full-price release, but the same is true of the Sony CD at 55 minutes.)

This would be an excellent first recording of the Bruch, but buyers would almost certainly want to go on to add a recording of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto or the Bruch Scottish Fantasy, or both, thereby almost certainly obtaining another recording of the Bruch concerto in the bargain.

That said, I shall certainly return to this recording of the Bruch and often. If you want to hear a warhorse you need a whole-hearted performance and Ray Chen certainly throws himself and his violin into the work.  He is very well supported by the LPO and Robert Trevino, while the recording, made in the Henry Wood Hall, is more naturally balanced than Bell’s on Sony where the soloist is a little too forwardly placed. Working from the CD, I haven’t had a chance to hear the high-res 24-bit version, but that can be obtained from Presto for £17.21.

The heart of the Bruch is in the central adagio and it’s so easy either to go over the top or to be afraid of doing so and underselling the music. Chen uses plenty of heart-wrenching vibrato, but he, the LPO and Trevino get it just right here, as they do in the outer movements where shimmering strings again stop just short of sounding hammy.

I’ve been grumpy about the hybrid nature of this album, but the other works receive whole-hearted performances too, in which Chen is very ably abetted by his own quartet ‘Made in Berlin’ and pianist Julien Quentin. Had this been just an album of these shorter pieces, it would have been recommendable in its own right. This is the sort of music that Yehudi Menuhin and Stéphane Grappelli, together or separately, used to do so well. (Try Grappelli in Beulah’s St Louis Blues, my Jazz Reissue of the Month in Winter 2017/18_1). To mention Chen and his partners in the same paragraph as these luminaries of the fiddle is praise indeed.

The booklet has the usual shortcomings of offerings of young stars’ recordings from the Universal stable: lots of pictures of Ray Chen in various moods but too little information. With Tully Potter writing, we could have had a really authoritative set of notes. And with 77-year-old eyesight, I could have done with something more legible than the pale yellow and white on brown track and recording details. The online version from Naxos Music Library is actually more legible.

If you are looking for a performance of the Bruch into which heart and soul have been poured, this could be what you are looking for. If you want an evening of Kreisler and Heifetz arrangements very well presented, it’s that too. I just wish it had been one or the other, not both. Perhaps Decca might consider recording Chen in the Scottish Fantasy and the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and re-coupling the Bruch concerto with them. That could be an outright winner. He has already recorded the Mendelssohn for Sony, but Brian Reinhardt was not convinced by the Tchaikovsky coupling - review - and Paul Corfield Godfrey had some reservations about the Mendelssohn - review.

Brian Wilson



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