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Piotr Ilych Tchaikovsky: Complete Works for Violin and Orchestra: Concerto, Op. 35 (1878), "Sérénade mélancolique," Op. 26 (1875), Souvenir d'un lieu cher, Op. 42 (1878), and Valse-Scherzo, Op. 34 (1877). Jennifer Koh, violin , Odense (DK) Symphony Orch., Alexander Vedernikov, cond. Çedille 90000 166, © 2016 TT 74:20, $12.00, CD or download, MP3, $7.00. (Listing is alphabetical, not performance order, which is that of publication.)
Tchaikovsky's violin concerto is one of the most recognizable classical music works, so often is it played. It is for many, along with those of Brahms, Bruch, and Mendelssohn, the epitome of the Romantic violin concerto, because it is super-, not to say hyper-melodic and virtuosic. But it is not the only work he wrote for this configuration; there are three others, far less frequently played. All were written in a circa three-year period of change and emotional turmoil for him, most noticeably reflected in the somber Sérénade […], during which he married, left his wife after two months, lived for a time with his former violin student Iosif Kotek (the dedicatee of the Valse-Scherzo), who was also likely his lover, and became acquainted, through Kotek, with Nadezhda von Meck, who became his protector on the condition that they not meet, although they did inadvertently do so on her estate – once – during this time. The result is that all four compositions contain similar material, melodies, moods, rhythms, and styles.
The three-movement Souvenir […] experienced the most complex compositional process: its first movement, "Méditation," was written in three days in March 1878 with the intention of its being the slow movement of the concerto but then eliminated from it and rearranged for violin and piano. The remaining two movements were composed for that instrumentation during a stay at von Meck's estate, Brailov* in late May that year and were orchestrated later by Alexander Glazunov. The mood of "Méditation" is reminiscent of that of the "Sérénade mélancolique," the second movement Scherzo is reminiscent of Mendelssohn's from Midsummer Night's Dream, and the third movement, "Mélodie," evokes his Lieder ohne Worte. The other works were composed rather rapidly in intense periods of concentrated work: the concerto was composed in a 25-day period in March and April 1878, for example.
Many violinists perform the concerto as a lush and flashy showpiece, often using oversized forces as well, and sometimes with excessive rallentandos, rubato, and vibrato, milking it (and the audience) for all it's worth, occasionally verging on the sappy, so this is unfortunately how we perceive it. Koh's performance seems more restrained, considered, and introspective, less grandiose, more intimate and personal; the virtuosity is there, but in the music, not in gestural display or physical drama. Vedernikov is Russian, known for his understanding and communication of Russian music and the Russian soul. The orchestral support is in general more discreet than that to which we are accustomed as well. This reading likely corresponds much more closely to the composer's conception and intent and is a much more rewarding listening experience. This extends to the performances of the other works as well, making this CD a rewarding insight into the composer's life, mind, and soul at that time. To my knowledge, Tchaikovsky was not a flamboyant "queen," which some performances of the concerto might suggest, but I have not read a detailed biography of him.
The 20-page accompanying booklet opens with the production credits (Judith Sherman was the producer, Bill Maylone the engineer) on p. 2 and track listings with timings facing on p. 3. Koh, who is Musical America's 2016 musician of the year, offers a personal note detailing her experience with the concerto on p. 4: it was the work she played in her first major performance, under Vedernikov, in the final round of the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1992, which she won in Moscow in 1994, playing the Brahms and this work again, for which she also won a special prize for the best performance thereof. An excellent program note by composer, performer, writer, and educator Patrick Castillo occupies pp. 4-9. Koh's bio is on pp. 10-12, with a color photo facing on p. 13; Vedernikov's bio is on pp. 14-16 with a small color "mug-shot" in the bottom right corner of the latter, and the Odense Symphony is described on p. 17. Pp. 18-19 spotlight some of Koh's other Çedille recordings, and the back cover recognizes regular supporters of Çedille's recording projects; it is a not-for-profit foundation. The only information missing is the orchestra's roster, so we have no idea of the size of the forces, and the maker and date of Koh's instrument.
When reviewing a CD of a work like the concerto that has been recorded countless times by innumerable soloists, I always conclude by asking myself: "Does the world really need another recording of this piece?" – "and this one in particular?" I then draw my conclusion and attempt to justify why it is worthy of the reader's consideration. This one stands out from the competition for several reasons: 1) It places the concerto in its compositional context rather than pitting it against one of its primary contemporary and stylistic competitors; 2) Its advocates, Koh and Vederenikov, have lived with it together for nearly a quarter-century, so have had the time to absorb, digest, and reflect on it and to develop their performance of it accordingly; and consequently 3) It deserves to be heard and taken seriously, even if it differs significantly from so many others to which we are accustomed, because it may well be the better reading of the piece, perhaps even the definitive one for the present state of knowledge. Highly recommended.
*The dedicatee is: "B******" = the estate itself; he gave the manuscript to her.
Note: Hear this solo artist play this concerto in Asheville on September 17. For details, click here.