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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Violin Concerto in D major Op.35 [36.53]
Meditation in D minor Op.42 No.1 [9.40]
Danse Russe from Swan Lake Ė Act III Op.20 [4.28]
Joshua Bell (violin)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Michael Tilson Thomas
Recorded at the Philharmonie between 27-31 January 2005 (Concerto recorded live)

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This isnít the first time Bell has recorded the Tchaikovsky. He set it down in Cleveland for Decca with Ashkenazy conducting but like a good number of others Ė Vadim Repin most prominently of late Ė he returned to it again fairly soon. This reading is more personalised than the earlier one and the gestures are more extreme and the point of view far more pronounced. The breathless notes read as if they were written by a love-sick schoolgirl but do report Bell as saying that he finds the work one of the most "intimate" in the repertory; that, I think, sets the marker for his performance.

Doubtless there are slower performances of the first movement but Iíve yet to hear one. Not even Nigel Kennedy was this slow, with Bell stretching the material to a full nineteen and a half minutes. This in itself is not the issue Ė tempo relation is the structural point Ė but it becomes an issue if counter-themes and subsidiary orchestral material is rendered diffuse or turgid, or loses its point. This, I have to say, it comes close to doing in this performance. The approach is one of corporate reverence and remarkable attention to detail but the means sound to my ears somewhat manicured. In attempting to rid the work of its bardic heroism, its flag-waving virtuosic pose, I fear that Bell and Tilson Thomas have substituted, in this movement at least, self-conscious mannerism. Too much here is point making Ė dynamics are exaggerated, the melodic lines are stretched to breaking point, the elements of innocence they seek are subsumed instead to a kind of didacticism; the cadenza is rather sentimentalised and Bell, though evoking intimacy in his reported comments, canít convert it into simplicity. Too much here is fussed over, presented as new minted and stretched. Tilson Thomas canít help camping up the percussion at the end either.

The slow movement is taken at a central, reasonable tempo. He brings a greater weight of expression here than before. The principal flautist shines as well, shadowing the solo lines. Bell dares a couple of tiny, quick portamenti, though he canít resist going all out for extremes of dynamics even here. The finale is taken at a relaxed tempo; itís playful but with a lot of contrasts. A genuine highlight is the way Bell matches his phrasing and tonal shading with the wind principals Ė not for nothing is he an increasingly eloquent chamber player. The quality he demonstrates uppermost here is that of involvement with those around him; to that extent heís an active collaborator and not just a hired gun. And his tone takes on greater qualities of depth here. He was disappointingly monochromatic in the first movement. And yet even here things sound capricious for the sake of it ... even if theyíre not. Things donít sound natural; itís all too stop-start. And to be truthful, not too exciting either. And in the finale of this of all concertos thatís a downright sin.

Still, the audience in Berlin whoop with delight so what do I know. The ungenerous extras were recorded in the Philharmonie as well but arenít live. The recording throughout is supple and warm and the orchestra plays with finesse and sound well rehearsed. The Meditation is attractively playful and expressive. But at fifty-one minutes for a major work such as this Iím disappointed that Bell didnít get down to the library and dust off, say, the Taneyev Suite de Concert or a work of that vintage. As for the Concerto youíll find it something of a novel experience but as for me Iím off to listen to Heifetz, Milstein, Oistrakh and Elman.

Jonathan Woolf


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