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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Violin Concerto no. 1 in D major, op.19 [21:30]
Violin Concerto no.2 in G minor, op. 63 [27:05]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Violin Concerto in D major [22:05]
Kyung Wha Chung (violin)
London Symphony Orchestra/André Previn
rec. London 1972 (Stravinsky), 1975 (Prokofiev)
Presto CD
DECCA 425 003-2 [70:51]

Kyung Wha Chung is seventy-two now. That seems unbelievable; she was one of the very first Asian music-makers to become a star in the western musical world, though nowadays she devotes her great musicianship and experience to her teaching.

These recordings are already, in their way, classics, and are doubly notable because of the fine work of Previn and the LSO, who formed an intimate bond with Chung in performance.
She brought an intensity and a passion to these glorious works, and these tracks are an ideal introduction to her talents.

The first of the Prokofiev concertos is an early work, composed in 1917 when he was in his mid-twenties. It is therefore an exact contemporary of his most widely known concert work (other than ‘Peter and the Wolf’), the ‘Classical’ Symphony. Much as I love the brilliant wit of the symphony, the concerto gives a much truer and fuller picture of the young Prokofiev’s genius. The opening, with the beautiful main theme of the work presented against almost inaudible trembling strings, is unforgettable, and the delicacy of the interplay between soloist and orchestra throughout is something very special. Chung is deeply expressive and masterful as the drama unfolds, with enormous contrasts and demands on the technique and musicianship of the soloist. I love the way she attacks the middle of the movement with a wild energy, and the quiet recapitulation, a solo flute surrounded by violin tracery, is every bit as magical as it should be.

She brings that same wildness to the scherzo – she wasn’t afraid of tonal roughness either, when appropriate. The orchestral playing is vivid, with splendid tuba groans. There’s more tuba in the finale, and a memorable return of the main theme from the first movement, all in trills in the solo violin - Chung’s playing in this crucial passage is stunning. It’s a wonderful performance, and compares very favourably with what remains my ‘personal best’ for this piece, which is Vengerov with Rostropovich on Teldec. It is hard to explain in words (let’s be honest – it’s impossible!), but it seems that Vengerov is able to penetrate effortlessly to the heart and soul of this music. Despite her brilliance and profound musicianship, Chung doesn’t achieve quite that level of intimacy with the essential spirit of the piece.

The performances of the other two works are on the same level as the first one, in terms both of the soloist and the orchestral accompaniment. Violin Concerto no. 2 is, along with the third piano concerto, Prokofiev’s finest work in the genre, and once more, Chung gives it everything she has – transcendental violin technique and deep musical insight. For this piece, I compared hers with a more recent recording, that by Patricia Kopatchinskaya, the outrageously gifted Moldovan virtuoso, recorded in 2014 with Jurowski and the LPO. Again, there is little to choose between them, Chung’s being certainlythe more unashamedly Romantic reading. But is that a negative? No; Prokofiev was still only in his 40s after all, and his next opus was to be the ballet Romeo and Juliet. Kopatchinskaya may indeed find a subtler layer of meaning and emotion in the work; her decision to play the melody of the slow movement at the beginning without any vibrato was a brave one, and has a wonderful pay-off as she gently feeds the vibrato back in – tonal monochrome gradually turning to full colour. However, I couldn’t rate her reading as a whole superior to Chung’s deeply sympathetic account.

Kopatchinkskaya completed her recording with the Stravinsky Violin Concerto of 1931. Chung, however gives us the Stravinsky plus both Prokofiev concertos, so in value for money terms alone, she gets her nose in front! But what about the readings of the Stravinsky? Both are of course very fine; but Kopatchinskaya introduces so much more of a sense of fantasy, of quasi-improvisation, especially in the middle movements of the concerto. Both capture the irrepressible joie de vivre of the finale, but the younger player gives it an even greater sense of mischievous fun – it’s an almost disreputable performance, and I love that.

Kyung Wha Chung is a true twentieth-century great of the violin. On this CD, even though none of them may be the undisputed ‘best on record’, what you get is three magnificent performances of some of the finest violin works of the entire 20th century. Fantastic value – in every sense.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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