This complete concert from May of 1973 is the third in a series of "live" releases celebrating Carlo Maria Giulini's long association with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. It was preceded by broadcast performances of Bruckner's Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, and has recently been followed by two recordings that focus on the French repertory. Giulini first conducted the Berlin in October of 1967, and his last appearance with them was twenty-five years later, in September 1992: a total of ninety-one concerts. These remarkable recordings suggest that over the years the conductor developed a very special relationship with the orchestra: all of the performances released so far reflect the kind of deep spiritual and musical affinity that fully explains why the Berlin administration went to such pains to secure Giulini as Karajan's successor. (Long story short: they failed, and he eventually went to Los Angeles.)
Not all of Guilini's concerto recordings are memorable. In fact, some of them — an elephantine Brahms First with Alexis Weissenberg, a weird Mozart Concerto with Horowitz, a strangely lackluster Dvorak Concerto with Rostropovitch — are eminently forgettable. In Kyung Wha Chung, however, he is mated to a like-minded soloist whose singular virtues — intensity and concentration-- reflect his own. The result is a Tchaikovsky Concerto that ranks with the very best ever recorded.
In a sense, this shouldn't be surprising. Though Chung has just recently returned to performing after a five year hiatus due to a finger injury, at the time of this performance, there simply was no more magnetic or accomplished violinist, and her two studio recordings of the concerto (with Previn and the LSO in 1970, and later with Charles Dutoit and the Montreal) have pretty much dominated the competition ever since. In The Penguin Guide, critic Edward Greenfield tried to describe her singular approach to the Concerto in these glowing terms: "Chung is engagingly volatile, responding to the inspiration of the moment, yet she is a deeply thoughtful interpreter. The results are tenderly affecting." In The Gramophone Good CD Guide, James Jolly noted Chung's uncanny ability to balance "a hint of vulnerability" with "daring," "weight and gravity with a buoyant spontaneity."
All of these virtues apply to her performance here. But if you add the intensely passionate support of Giulini and the Philharmonic, and the excitement of a live performance, you have a truly historic collaboration, a Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto for the ages.
Giulini made two commercial recordings of the Dvorak Seventh Symphony: with the London Philharmonic in 1976, and later in 1993 with the Concertgebouw. Neither comes close to matching the outright drama of a live performance with the London Philharmonic from 1969 that was released a few years back on BBC Legends. The interpretation here, four years later, is pretty much the same. Certainly no conductor has ever taken to such an extreme the tragic implications of the score. Giulini's tempos generally became more spacious over time. In this case, however, his tempos are not unconventionally slow, but they sometimes seem so because of the added weight and gravity of the interpretation.
The difference between the 1969 performance and the one we're dealing with here is the difference between a very good orchestra stretched to its limits and one of the greatest orchestras of all time playing with both total security and total abandon. As in the live recording of the Bruckner Eighth, one has the sense of the musicians giving the conductor everything they have. There's a fire in the playing, and the performance seethes and blazes with a kind of tension that's mostly absent from their performances with Karajan, who was, after all, a control freak. That manicured approach has been replaced by a reckless daring that makes the climaxes almost unbearably intense, and also just a little frightening.
Throughout his career, Giulini routinely programmed The Prelude to Khovanchina to introduce concerts that featured Romantic or Russian composers. Without any statistics to support me, I'm guessing that he performed it more than any other single piece of music. It is a concise, radiant tone poem, gorgeously rendered, and the perfect beginning for a concert that is about to produce such fireworks.
I can't pretend the sound here is state of the art. Clearly there's been some compression: we're dealing with a source that's thirty-seven years out of date. Still, it's good enough to forcefully capture the richness and drama of these performances. If you want to know the kind of magical things that can happen when a great conductor, orchestra, and soloist join forces on a good night, there's no better place to start than right here.