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Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn: Violin Concertos
Franz Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat major; Piano Concerto No. 2 in A major
Edvard Grieg Piano Concerto in A minor
Stephen Hough (piano), Andrew Litton conducting the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major, Op. 35
Felix Mendelssohn Concerto for Violin and orchestra in E minor, op. 64

Ray Chen (violin), Daniel Harding conducting the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Review By Joe Milicia


  Tasked with reviewing yet another recording that duplicates standard repertory, most music critics (alas, myself included) will occasionally revert to formula. First, you mention the overwhelming number of recordings of that particular piece. Next you compare the newcomer to the most well known of those recordings, and not too surprisingly find it wanting in one or more respects.

According to Arkiv music, there are currently 139 recordings of the Liszt E flat minor concerto in the catalogue, 106 of the A major. Not surprisingly, the Grieg edges both in popularity with 141 recordings. As for the violin concertos, the Mendelssohn tops the Tchaikovsky, 224 recordings to 205. And for each of these compositions, there are indeed great performances aplenty, far too many to even briefly mention here. Still, I can't resist noting that Sviatislav Richter's pairing of both Liszt concertos with Kyril Kondrashin on Phillips has dominated the field since it was first released in the early 60's. As you can well imagine, the Grieg concerto has been well represented on discs, usually paired with the Schumann A minor. Though there are many alternatives, Stephen Kovacevich's version, ably supported by Colin Davis, still sounds affectionate and luminous after forty years. More recently, the bracing performance by Leif Ove Andsnes (with Mariss Jansons) has held its own in a crowded and ever growing field. In both the Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn, Kyung Wha Chung is at her expressive, razor-sharp best, and there is always the inescapable (and incomparable) Jascha Heifetz to contend with. And that's just for openers.

So why even bother with a new recording of any of these works? The answer is, quite simply, that great works are and should be inexhaustible. Artur Schnabel once said that there has always been "music that is greater than it can ever be performed." In other words, no single performance of a masterpiece can ever be definitive. And that's good news for all lovers of classical music, not just critics. It's certainly a professional liability that critics are forced to endure many mediocre recordings. But happily, hopefully, there will always be performances of a familiar piece that remove the accumulated dust and routine and make us hear it as if for the first time.

For more than 30 years now, Stephen Hough has been one of our most consistent, dazzling, and adventurous artists. A true Renaissance man, Hough was honored with a MacArthur "Genius" award as much for his achievements as a scholar and educator as for his many brilliant recordings. Those who want to experience Hough's wit and intelligence directly are referred to his always entertaining and informative blog. For all that, I think the most important thing to note about Hough is that throughout his long career, the man has remained a true Romantic at heart. Though his repertory is wide-ranging, it's mostly dead-centered in the mid-19th Century, and includes the usual suspects (Chopin, Liszt, Schumann) as well as more exotic fare (concertos by Scharwenka and Sauer).

Liszt labored almost ten years on his much-anticipated first concerto, and the result was an ingenuous and inventive Jack-in-the-Box that startled many of his contemporaries with its shocking modernity. Though Liszt is often thought of, especially today, as a long-winded composer of unwieldy, self-indulgent works, his E flat major concerto is concise and concentrated. As Kenneth Hamilton's program notes point out, "by the Allegro agitato assai, we've essentially heard all the melodic material the composer intends to use for the rest of the work." The final result is a series of surprising variations. That Hough has restored the sense of both urgency and surprise to a work that has seemed, in too many recent recordings, overly familiar and stale, is itself the most surprising aspect of his performance. The A major concerto has never been as popular as its older sibling, and performances of it tend to sprawl and bluster. Hough's approach is rhapsodic, improvisational, but also propelled by a fiery intensity that holds this difficult work together and makes every moment seem a matter of life and death.

The Grieg is not often paired with either or both Liszt concertos, and that's a little surprising as Liszt saw the work in manuscript, offered some changes that Grieg was only too happy to incorporate. Throughout the rest of his career, Liszt remained one of the concerto's most devoted adherents. This most popular of all concertos receives a thrilling, heart-on-sleeve, emotionally charged performance. Sometimes pianists exaggerate the extremes, and wind up sounding melodramatic and sentimental. Hough strikes an affecting, convincing balance between the dramatic and lyrical episodes that makes this overly familiar work sound newly minted. In fact I've never heard those breath-stopping melodies played with more beauty or grace.

Ray Chen's family migrated from Taiwan to Australia, where he first started playing the violin at the age of 4 and made his debut with the Queensland Philharmonic Orchestra at the ripe old age of 8. Now 23, he has won both the Menuhin Competition in 2008 and the prestigious Queen Elizabeth competition in 2009. It may seem rash to have chosen two of the best-known and most technically challenging works for his Sony Classical debut; but in fact, these are the concertos that won him those awards, and his flawless, authoritative playing suggests a close and very personal connection to this music.

These are not revelatory performances in the manner of Hough's Liszt and Grieg, but they are no less engaging or satisfying. Chen brings a youthful, ardent, improvisational approach to these concertos. Though there is no lack of dramatic contrast or virtuoso fireworks here -- the opening of the Mendelssohn is especially restless and surging--Chen tends to emphasize the genial, lyric nature of both works. He draws a warm and glowing tone from his 1721 "Macmillan" Stradivarius that's a joy to hear. In the bristling finales, Chen's spontaneity and daring carry the day. But what I like best about young Chen is his maturity: he doesn't feel obliged to put his personal stamp on the music, or to use it as a showcase for virtuoso display. These performances are unforced, flowing, and completely natural.

Both Hough and Chen are fortunate to be partnered by sympathetic conductors and orchestras. Andrew Litton matches Hough's intensity and concentration; Daniel Harding provides Chen with a rich-sounding, filigreed, imaginative accompaniment. Neither the Bergen Philharmonic nor the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra are among Europe's top ensembles, but both play like a house on fire for their respective soloists.

The Sony Classical sound is a little close for my liking, but still very detailed and balanced. The Hyperion is, as always with this label, demonstration quality. The Grieg/Liszt album can be highly recommended both to those who know these familiar works perhaps too well and also to those coming to this music for the first time. As for the Chen, those in search of a good-sounding, modern recording of these two works need look no further.





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