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Max BRUCH (1838-1920)
Scottish Fantasy, Op.46 [26:55] Aram KHACHATURIAN (1903-1978)
Violin Concerto in D [35:45]
Wei-Wei Le (violin)
Pueblo Symphony Orchestra/Jacob Chi
rec. Hong Recital Hall, CSU–Pueblo, Colorado, USA. February 2015 (Bruch), August 2017 (Khachaturian) BLUE GRIFFIN BGR507 [62:43]
This very boomy, bass-heavy and decidedly in-your-face recording was made live at two concerts held at the Colorado State University in Pueblo before (if the squawks and hollers of the audience are to be taken as a guide) a hugely enthusiastic audience. It features the Pueblo Symphony Orchestra under Chinese-born conductor Jacob Chi, who is also a professor of the music at the University. The headline artist, however, is the Chinese violinist Wei-Wei Le. And if you have heard of none of these musicians, you are not alone. Despite the orchestra now in its 91st season and Chi in his 25th season as their Music Director, not to mention the host of superlatives lavished on Le by Yehudi Menuhin, they rarely seem to have ventured into the realms of commercial recording.
Both performances are hot on emotional display and are bursting with colour, Ms Le pulling and stretching her violin in all directions and showing some impressive virtuoso dexterity especially in the Khachaturian 1st movement cadenza, and the orchestra throwing its considerable weight in support of her demonstratively dramatic delivery. On first hearing it is impressive, the live recording clearly aimed at captivating the audience present at the time rather than preserving musical integrity to recorded posterity. As a result, the shows of great drama and demonstrations of emotional involvement are delivered at some cost to textural precision. The 5th movement of the Bruch suffers rather badly from coordination issues (as well as invasive coughing from the audience) and the Khachaturian often seems to be struggling to keep itself together. But I can well imagine that in the live situation (interestingly no specific dates are given for either of these concerts, but I assume they were one-off events with no opportunity to do any serious post-performance patching) these really caught the imagination of those listening. I reckon I would have been as taken by Le’s dazzling violin pyrotechnics and luscious tone as anyone in the audience, and would have gone home from the concerts deeply impressed at such committed orchestral playing.
However, recordings are not one-off events, and repeated listening makes the many small but irritating flaws assume a significance they certainly would not have had in the concert-hall. On repeated listening Chi’s penchant for ratcheting up the tension at any excuse becomes rather tiring, as does Le’s extensive vocabulary of blatant interpretative gestures. The opening of the 2nd movement of the Khachaturian has all the subtlety of a blood-soaked room and murdered body at the start of some TV detective thriller., while the tear-streaked pathos of the Bruch’s 4th movement is rather more Hollywood than Holyrood.
In many ways those who are new to these works will find instant appeal in these powerfully evocative performances, but neither really stands up in comparison with the recorded competition. For Bruch, both Nicola Benedetti (on Decca) and Joshua Bell (on Sony classical) are my preferred recent versions, while David Oistrakh (Warner Classics) still reigns supreme with the Khachaturian, although James Ehnes (Onyx) comes up with a compelling modern recording.