Before there was Midori and Sonnenberg and other assorted babes with violins, there was Kyung-Wha Chung.
Violin Concerto No. 1
Recorded in Kingsway Hall by Colin Moorfoot, produced by James Mallinson.
How appropriate to listen to Prokofieff's first violin concerto on a cold winter's night for the first movement conjures up a snow covered Russia caught firmly in winter's icy grip. Yet the frozen landscape has its own strange beauty in spite of its harsh austerity. The movement begins with a soft trembling figure in the strings that is soon joined by an equally soft melody in the flute. Meanwhile the soloist sings her own sad song above it all. I do not remember KW Chung having quite this big of a tone in real life. I suspect she's getting a bit of a boost from the engineers. Her bag, of course, is finesse, intelligence and phrasing. The cleanness and speed of her playing will make your jaw drop and she articulates the spiky phrases with astonishing élan and panache. The London Symphony under Previn provide the most sympathetic accompaniment imaginable. The shimmering effect they achieve with plucked strings at the end of this movement will send shivers up your spine.
This is a young man's concerto. The middle movement is usually a slow one but Prokofieff simply cannot contain himself and sends the violin skittering off in that breathless pell mell rush which is his trademark. It is his signature sound which makes us say instantly, "Ah, Prokofieff!" A couple of minutes into this movement we hear a mighty crashing from the percussion that will test the dynamic capabilities of your system.
The last movement begins with a wonderful honking low melody in the bassoon before the strings once again take over with a fresh bracing figure. The music swells, pulses, and builds until the entire orchestra joins in for yet another thunderous tutti. During this movement I had one of those moments reviewers write about where you just have to stop writing and just enjoy the music. What poignant feelings of longing and homesickness. The performance is a delight from start to finish.
Violin Concerto No. 2
Recorded in Kingsway Hall by James Lock, produced by Christopher Raeburn.
The first and second concertos are very alike. Both are angular with spiky rhythms and fresh bracing melodies. Both evoke Mother Russia in spades. But where the First presents a Russia gripped by winter, the Second shows us a Russia in the more hopeful warmth of springtime. The melodies are softer. The first movement begins with the soloist alone, slowly and thoughtfully before taking off in a rapid staccato run. KW Chung exhibits some beautiful playing here, executing the extremely rapid tempo and tonal changes flawlessly. At times her violin sounds very polished, at others raw and savage. The basses contribute an occasional deep rumbling.
The violin solo that begins almost immediately in the second movement is one long elegiac song cushioned by the strings which echo the soloist's theme. If this doesn't touch you, you have a heart of stone. Gone is the unrestrained exuberance of youth, replaced by an older person's chastened outlook. By this time in his life, Prokofieff had experienced exile, return and disillusionment with the Soviet system. The Slavs are an emotional people. It is hard to believe that the music doesn't reflect his experience. The music then becomes very angular in typical Prokofieffian fashion before returning again to that beautiful first theme which is taken over at the end by the lower woodwinds and brass playing over plucked strings. The horns in particular play with a beautifully burnished golden glow.
The last movement opens with deep rumblings in the bass over which KW Chung floats Prokofieff's jagged melody. The solo violin continues to dart nimbly in and out of the loud rumblings of the orchestra. Again, another delightful piece of music making that ends with fine flourish.
This album is a sonic blockbuster. I just love that Decca sound. So rich, so dark, so mysterious. It perfectly complements the music. The dynamics are superb with the tympani in particular captured full strength. If you think only audiophile record companies can produce audiophile quality records, one listen to this album will convince you otherwise.
It's been said that Kingsway Hall where these recordings were made owes its superb acoustics to the cavity beneath the hall and the helpful damping provided by the carpets stored there by a helpful rug merchant. Alas, this worthy removed his carpets one day and the hall hasn't been the same since.
Decca sold its records in the USA under the London label. As far as I can tell there is no truth to the base rumor that Decca used their unsuspecting cousins as a dumping ground for inferior pressings.
Musical Enjoyment: 95
Sound Quality: 90