Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D

Laura: What are you listening to?
Dan: Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto.
L: Which one?
D: He only wrote one.
L: So Violin Concerto Number 1 then?
D: Uh, well, just "Violin Concerto." I think.

If you thought the critical reaction to Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 was bad, wait until you hear about the abuse heaped upon his Violin Concerto.
Erich Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony Orchestra
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Itzhak Perlman, Violin
Violin Concerto
Piano Concerto No. 1
RCA/Papillon, 1987

Despite the fact that Tchaikovsky dedicated the work to Leopold Auer, a famous violinist of the time, Auer refused to play it, considering it too technically difficult. Later, violinist Adolf Brodsky, a fellow Russian, performed the work for an audience in Vienna in 1881--and the audience hissed (apparently, booing didn't become popular in Europe until years later).

Worse still were the critical reviews. As the (uncredited) liner notes accompanying this CD tell it, "the notorious critic Eduard Hanslick" said:

..."the violin is no longer played; it is yanked about, it is torn asunder, it is beaten black and blue" and that the concerto "brings to us for the first time the horrid idea that there may be music that stinks in the ear."

I wonder what this guy would have said after hearing Paganini's Caprices.

Listener notes for Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto:
1) Could there be a bigger contrast between the enormous, hippopotamus-like opening of the Piano Concert No. 1 and the quiet opening of this work?

2) Does anyone else find off-putting Perlman's excessive use of vibrato? I feel like I want to go up to him and say, "dude, just play the notes, okay?" It's disappointing when musicians (at any level, not just the pros) layer so much affectation on top of their playing that it detracts from the music.

3) One thing about Itzhak, though, is he has ferocious technical skills and he can make even preposterously difficult passages sound easy and effortless. A textbook example is the violin runs he plays from 4:40-4:52 in the first movement.

4) At the 7:15 mark of the first movement you can hear a particularly brutal "theme-and-variations" passage for the soloist. Even as a non-violinist I can tell that this passage is preposterously difficult. It sounds like something Paganini would write on a day when he was feeling ill will towards violin-playing mankind.

5) Listen at 9:47 and 9:57 in the first movement. Did you know a violin could play a note this high?

6) More ridiculously difficult parts: the solo violin passage from 12:57 to 13:54 contains difficult ascending runs. Perlman just blasts through them with no problem.

7) For headphone listeners and recording geeks only: the bassoon arpeggio in the opening of the second movement (it occurs at the 0:22-0:24 mark) jumps from the left speaker to the right for no apparent reason. If you close your eyes and imagine yourself watching the performance, you can almost see the musician teleport across the stage. Only the recording engineers and producers will know for sure, but this sounds to me like a splice of portions of two different takes. Also, at 0:37 in the same movement it sounds like there might be another splice when Itzhak comes in, another at 3:02 in the second movement, and yet another at 7:40 in the third movement.

I'm sure splicing like this is a common occurrence, simply because it's impractical to do repeated run-throughs of an entire symphony when you can just redo the dodgy passages and splice them in later. And of course it's nothing like what's done in pop music, where "singers" like Britney Spears will do 20 or more takes of any given song line in order to generate (out of pure luck?) the one take that actually sounds good and is sung on key.

9) Funny how an extremely minor (some would say unnoticeable) recording error can send a listener with sub-clinical OCD (uh, like myself) into a state where he's purely listening for recording errors and not really hearing the music at all. I had to put this disc away for a couple of days and tackle it again after a break.

10) The aggressive segue into the third movement is a real joy--and a bit of a shock, isn't it?

11) Itzhak's playing isn't anywhere near as clean in this movement as it is in the other movements. Then again, this movement truly does require him to do some serious yanking about and tearing asunder.

Please take a look at my other blogs!
Casual Kitchen: Cook More. Think More. Spend Less.
Quick Writing Tips: Short posts on writing, twice a week.

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