March 22, 2007


Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto, op. 35; Sérénade mélancolique, op. 26; Souvenir d’un lieu cher, op. 42 (orch. Glazunov); Valse-Scherzo, op. 34. Ilya Kaler, violin; Dmitry Yablonsky conducting the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra. Naxos. $8.99.

Bruckner: Symphony No. 4, “Romantic.” Günter Wand conducting the Münchner Philharmoniker. Profil. $16.99.

      It is so easy to overdo the performance of deeply Romantic music. Some works just seem to invite great, sprawling, over-emotional interpretations. But interestingly, performers who subdue the impulse to over-romanticize the Romantic tend to produce more interesting readings than ones who give in to it.

      Certainly there are few works as emblematic of the Romantic period as Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, which has been subject to all sorts of excesses in performance. That makes Ilya Kaler’s approach all the more fascinating: he is precise and not overly emotional. There is no wallowing in Kaler’s reading, or in the excellent support of Dmitry Yablonsky and the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra, who offer exemplary attention to detail throughout. Kaler has a thin but robust tone and the ability to accentuate every single note even in highly complex passages – at times he sounds like no less a virtuoso than Jascha Heifetz. But Heifetz rarely had orchestras and conductors this good – he had no interest in being overshadowed by “mere” accompanists. Kaler and Yablonsky are a partnership of equals, and the music is better for it. Kaler’s playing is perhaps a trifle cool, but it brings great rewards, as in the first movement’s cadenza, which turns out to sound remarkably fresh when you hear all the notes. The second movement comes across as a pleasant interlude and is not at all weepy. There is nothing prissy in the finale, which sounds almost effortless as Kaler plays it – with precision even in the fastest runs. Yablonsky makes sure the flute, oboe and clarinet solos complement the solo violin neatly. The result is an unusual, and unusually successful, performance.

      The other works here are less often played but no less Romantic in temperament. Kaler makes Sérénade mélancolique sound quiet and contemplative rather than melancholy, with precision playing that is just a touch showy. Souvenir d’un lieu cher – the “dear place” was the estate of Tchaikovsky’s patron, Madame von Meck, where he stayed while she was away – has a lovely sound in Glazunov’s orchestration (it was written for violin and piano). Some of the more attractive touches are not particularly Tchaikovskian, such as the harp in the first movement, but they sound beautiful nonetheless. Kaler is warm here, swirling in and out of the orchestra rather than dominating it. But he does dominate the second movement, a very fast Scherzo, and then makes the Trio unusually sweet. The final movement, simply called “Mélodie,” sounds wistful and a touch doleful. As for Valse-Scherzo, it is a showpiece, and Kaler plays it with humor and true Viennese rubato – taking a bit away from one measure and restoring it to another, not merely slowing down and speeding up indiscriminately. There’s no question that this is Romantic music, but the fact that Kaler does not wear his heart on his sleeve keeps the focus on the works rather than the performer – a pleasant change from the norm.

      The word Romantic applies to all Bruckner’s symphonies, but it is No. 4, in E-flat Major, that bears the appellation “Romantic” – and was so called by Bruckner himself. This opens the door to performances that sprawl every which way, by conductors with little sense of the unusual and striking architecture of Bruckner’s vast symphonic canvases. Günter Wand, though, is the antithesis of such performers, especially in the outstanding version of the Bruckner Fourth that he did in his final appearance with the Munich Philharmonic. Listening to this marvelous reading, you will be amazed to consider that Wand was 89½ when he led it, in September 2001 – and was to die five months later. The palpable vitality of the performance belies the conductor’s age as surely as the deep understanding of the music affirms it.

      Wand builds the first movement with careful attention to tempi, thematic groups and segmentation, and brings unusual breadth to the coda. The second movement is slow and expressive, drawing attention to pizzicati, solo flute and horn, and other Schubertian touches. This movement is highly effective as instrumental voices are added toward the end and the sound grows louder. Wand’s attention to detail is so careful that it becomes clear that a series of timpani beats strongly resembles the opening of the third movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, written less than a decade later. There is foreshadowing of Mahler’s First in the third movement as well: a passage where horns toss the theme to flutes almost belongs in Mahler’s first movement. But this justly famous “hunting” Scherzo is quintessential Bruckner – with the Munich strings here offering the sort of warmth usually associated with the Vienna Philharmonic, and with a slow Trio providing needed respite from the hectic hunting motifs.

      The first three minutes of the finale here are among the most exciting Bruckner sections ever recorded, as the solemnity of the opening march leads to spectacular full-orchestra sound and then a drop back into mysterious strings. The remainder of the movement is nearly at the same quality level, with emphasis on the delicacy of lightly scored sections but with plenty of power when needed. Wand continues his uncanny balancing of strings and brass right through to the inexorable buildup to the symphony’s overwhelming conclusion. There is silence – apparently stunned silence – from the audience when the music ends, lasting for long seconds until deafening and much-deserved applause breaks out. This is a great Bruckner Fourth – and it is great in large part because Wand acknowledges the symphony as “Romantic” without demanding that his forces plunge too deeply into the excesses of the Romantic temperament.

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