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Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn: Violin Concertos / Ray Chen

Release Date: 02/07/2012 
Label:  Sony   Catalog #: 798410  
Composer:  Peter Ilyich TchaikovskyFelix Mendelssohn
Performer:  Ray Chen
Conductor:  Daniel Harding
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

TCHAIKOVSKY Violin Concerto. MENDELSSOHN Violin Concerto Ray Chen (vn); Daniel Harding, cond; Swedish RSO SONY B88697984102 (63: 53)

In Fanfare 34:6, I urgently recommended Ray Chen’s first recording, titled Ray Chen—Virtuoso , containing Giuseppe Tartini’s “Devil’s Trill” Sonata, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Chaconne, Henri Wieniawski’s Read more Legende and Variations on an Original Theme , and César Franck’s Violin Sonata. But if that program doesn’t seem representative of the showpiece repertoire that its title suggests, listeners might still want to hear him, before passing final judgment, play the standard concertos. These he provides in his recording of Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s and Felix Mendelssohn’s violin concertos. Sony’s engineers haven’t come so close to their soloist as violinists a generation ago might have expected, but they’ve captured the slight acid in the 1721 Macmillan Stradivari on loan to him (or does that tone quality derive from the example set by his teacher at Curtis, Aaron Rosand?), as well as a great deal of orchestral detail. In any case, Chen makes a personal statement in the opening measures of Tchaikovsky’s work, as did those violinists a generation ago, and he creates a frisson in the lower registers as well as crackling static electricity in the higher-range passagework. Here and there he personalizes the movement with a slight ritard or other expressive device that, once again, makes the performance his own. It’s that personal quality, rather than any brilliance in the cadenza or at the movement’s climactic moments, that makes the performance so prepossessing. He brings some of the same individuality to the Canzonetta, and in the finale, as in the opening movement, he seems most himself in the subsidiary themes (which, in fact, offer more scope for expressivity). Daniel Harding and the orchestra also take advantage of opportunities to make the reading one that stands, on account of its individuality, outside the mainstream. But then, so did Mischa Elman’s, Jascha Heifetz’s, and David Oistrakh’s, though not, of course, in the same way—and by a greater distance.

In Mendelssohn’s concerto, Chen hardly takes Heifetz’s blistering tempo, but his view is nevertheless hardly romantic. His notes cite the judgment that Mendelssohn stood between the Classical and Romantic eras (perhaps in personality as well as chronologically), and that’s the way he and the orchestra play the work (still, the composer marked the movement’s first version Allegro molto , only adding appassionato later, so Heifetz may have had an epiphany of sorts). The cadenza, perhaps written in part by Ferdinand David, may never have sounded so nuanced as Chen makes it here, but he doesn’t strain for effect. In fact, Chen seems to bring a sense of freshness and vitality to the movement without rushing the tempos or engaging in outré experiments (for example, his slow-down before the cadenza hardly sounds so ponderous as did Oistrakh’s, and hardly anyone would have considered Oistrakh a dabbler in interpretive arcana). Chen sounds particularly poignant in the slow movement, not only in the middle section but in the main melody as well. And he makes the finale dance lightly, certainly without racing, the way Eugène Ysaÿe might seem to have done, even at 4:57, for a blistering, very early (1912) recording with piano. Heifetz, skipping the introduction, played it at 4:31 with piano in 1920, perhaps the record, though I’ve heard an Armed Forces disc of Florian ZaBach playing it for troops at almost the same breakneck speed (Chen takes 6:30 in this reading, compared to Heifetz’s 5:48 in 1949 with Thomas Beecham, 5:58 in 1957 with Charles Munch, not to mention his rapid live readings at 5:55 with Guido Cantelli in 1954 and at 6:13 with Arturo Toscanini in 1954), and he stays specially close to the orchestra throughout.

Has Ray Chen become Ray Chen, unmistakably and absolutely? Perhaps it’s even now too early to tell; but it doesn’t seem too early to judge with certainty that he possesses the ability to dig deep into a work, or even a melody, to find something new without making an obviously laborious effort. Add to that ample technical and musical resources upon which to draw in shaping what he dredges up from the deep, and you have a violinist who should be able to compete with the golden-age virtuosos on equal footing. Once again, urgently recommended.

FANFARE: Robert Maxham
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Works on This Recording

Concerto for Violin in D major, Op. 35 by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Performer:  Ray Chen (Violin)
Conductor:  Daniel Harding
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1878; Russia 
Concerto for Violin in E minor, Op. 64 by Felix Mendelssohn
Performer:  Ray Chen (Violin)
Conductor:  Daniel Harding
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1844; Germany 

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