TCHAIKOVSKY: Violin Concerto in D, op. 35. MYASKOVSKY: Violin Concerto in D minor, op. 44.
Vadim Repin, violin; Kirov Orchestra/Valery Gergiev, cond.
Philips 289 473 343 {DDD} TT: 71:48

Diamonds and rust. I've heard people complaining about the coupling—"Why do we need another Tchaikovsky concerto?"—as if Philips tried to palm off inferior goods and to walk the safe path. I guess it's just not possible to do anything right for such classical-music fans, who apparently have completely forgotten Philips's inclusion of the Myaskovsky. At least it isn't the Mendelssohn.

I might as well confess my guilty secret. Tchaikovsky, one of my favorite composers, wrote my second-favorite violin concerto. I admit he lacks the architectural genius of Brahms, but architecture isn't everything. He gets a raw deal from, I suspect, people who listen to music out of duty, rather than out of sensual pleasure. An unapologetic musical hedonist, if I don't enjoy the grosser aspects of a work, I probably won't bother to investigate the architecture. Who really wants to look at a solidly-built ugly house? In any case, the Tchaikovsky not only rings my chimes but holds together beautifully as well. The composer has nothing to apologize for.

I should note that I've never heard the concerto as Tchaikovsky wrote it. Its first player, Leopold Auer revised some of the passages so the soloist could wow with more brilliant effect, and the so-called "standard edition" makes a number of small cuts in the finale, in the name of reducing repetition. This is the version played here, and on practically every other CD and live performance I've heard.

Of course, there are over 125 recordings of this work out there (I haven't heard all of them, by the way), and I'm sure you have at least one. My favorites include—in no particular orde—Oistrakh, Stern, Heifetz, Mutter, Milstein, Perlman, Bell, Vengerov, and Morini. For those of you who could care less about Myaskovsky, the question becomes whether you want this duplicate.

I can answer this for myself easily—you bet I do!—and not just because it's the Tchaikovsky. Repin to me is the finest violinist now before the public. Perhaps I exaggerate. After all, I've heard only two recordings, both in Russian Romantic and post-Romantic repertoire. Technically, he has mastered everything. His tone is full and robust, his intonation dead on, even in the stratosphere and in double- and triple-stops. The technique joins amazing musicianship. Vengerov's tone may be sweeter, and though he plays the violin very well indeed, he doesn't always play the music. With Repin, one gets the feeling of a profound musical sensibility always on the move. He seems to make up his phrasing on the spot. Believe me, this isn't a Tchaikovsky concerto where the soloist predictably hits all the well-known marks. Amazingly, Gergiev and the Kirov match him, hesitation for hesitation, acceleration for acceleration. Reading this, you may get the impression of a musical taffy-pull, but, believe me, it all coheres. The larger structural concerns don't get lost. This is, for example, the only performance I know of where one hears the introductory strains of the second movement each time they come up, including the middle of the movement, where a climactic restatement of the main theme usually buries them. However, analyzing a performance like this can lead to the wrong impression. This is a charged, highly emotional account, not a studious one. It has the surprising advantage of impeccability, even as soloist and orchestra burn down the barn in the finale. I can't recommend the performance strongly enough.

Myaskovsky at this point appears a bit of a cult figure, which means only that the few people who have heard his music like it quite a bit. To some extent, he continues the Tchaikovskian line of Russian music into the Twentieth Century (Myaskovsky died in 1950), and the violin concerto straddles High Romanticism and early Modernism. At times, you think you're hearing Medtner, at others Khachaturian. However, Myaskovsky's inspiration doesn't stand out as something particularly individual. On the other hand, it seems (excluding certain occasional pieces) well-made and deeply-felt. I don't especially care for the composer's idiom, but I can see why people like the music. The violin concerto, a big, ambitious work running over half an hour, begins with a huge first movement (more than half the concerto) that aims at symphonic tautness. Myaskovsky uses three main ideas, two of them based on the minor third (or its inverse, the major sixth). To me, it goes on way too long for its material, with at least two large passages that just seem to pass by. On paper, one can see that Myaskovsky thematically relates everything, but rhetorically he seems to have miscalculated. Nevertheless, there's a lot of dark brooding that should appeal to Slavophiles. The slow movement opens with a lovely, sweetly singing theme that alternates with a sorrowful one. It seems to me typical of Myaskovsky's lyricism that sorrow gets more air time, even though the sweet singing ends the movement. The last movement—a rondo—opens with a rhythm sort of a second cousin to the finale of the Sibelius concerto. Here Myaskovsky concentrates at first on solo display, but a lyric episode, moving mainly by chords and introduced by strings, takes one by surprise. This is my favorite moment in the concerto. The conventional notions of what Russian music should sound like go out the window. It's a bit Vaughan Williams-y, as a matter of fact. Myaskovsky knew what he had, because he repeats it whenever he gets the chance. Nevertheless, the concerto ends, as most well-behaved concertos do, with a ramp up of the fireworks.

The sound is fine, but I find myself uneasy with the balance. You will never hear a live soloist dominate an orchestra as Repin does. On the other hand, you can hear Repin tear into climactic passages which normally get covered by an orchestra. Ultimately, I find myself agreeing with the choice Philips made.

S.G.S. (November 2003)