Tchaikovsky / Concerto for Violin & Orchestra / Oistrakh – Not Too Big to Fail

More of the Music of Tchaikovsky

Side two of this copy from our 2016 shootout provides a clear example of the effect known as the “The Violin That Ate Cincinatti.”

Yes, it may be oversized, but it’s so REAL and IMMEDIATE and harmonically correct in every way that we felt more than justified in ignoring the fact that the instrument could never sound in the concert hall the way it does here — unless you were actually playing it (and even then I doubt if it would be precisely the same sound — big, but surely quite different)

This is where the mindless and all but fetishistic embrace of ‘the absolute sound” breaks down completely. Recordings that do not conform to the ideal sound of the concert hall are not necessarily bad or wrong. Sometimes — as we think might be the case here — records with this sound can actually be more involving than their more “natural” counterparts.

This is especially true for rock and jazz, but it can also be true — at least to some degree — for classical music as well. If you don’t agree with us that the sound of the violin on side two of this pressing is more musically involving than it is on side one, you may of course return it for a full refund.

This Copy

Side two of this copy really took us by surprise. I’ve played close to twenty copies of this album, which, according to what little in the way of math skills I possess at this stage of life works out to nearly 40 sides. Somehow, the best reproduction of the violin I’ve heard ended up on side two of only this copy.

We call these kinds of records — or more accurately, the specific sides of these kinds of records — “outliers”, and often give them more than Three Pluses. Out of forty total sides it’s not hard to imagine that one of those sides could end up being a clear step up over the rest. As we never tire of saying, if you play enough copies…

Depth, Width and the Third Dimension

The violin here is superb — rich, smooth, clear, resolving. What sets the truly killer pressings apart is the depth, width and three-dimensional quality of the sound. The Tubey Magical richness is to die for. This record sounds more like 1959 than 1967, or 1979 for that matter.

Big space, a solid bottom, and plenty of dynamic energy are strongly in evidence throughout. Zero smear, high-rez transparency, tremendous dynamics, a violin that is present and solid — it takes the sound of this recording beyond what we thought was possible.

The Performance

As good as any on record. Igor Oistrakh, the son of the legendary David Oistrakh (here conducting), turns this one into a real barn burner. Play it against the recordings of Heifetz, Milstein, Campoli, Grumiaux, Szeryng — all our favorites — and any others you may know and we guarantee this one will hold its own with the best of them.

The Concerto

So prodigal is Tchaikovsky’s melodic inspiration that he can afford to begin the sonata-form opening movement with a lovely little theme for orchestral violins and then — just as he did at the beginning of his First Piano Concerto — never play it again. The orchestra next hints at the big theme to come and provides anticipatory excitement for the soloist.

After a brief warm-up stretch, he launches one of Tchaikovsky’s most inspired themes, and one with multiple personalities. At first, it is gentle, even wistful, but when the orchestra takes it up a few minutes later, it becomes very grand: music for an Imperial Russian ball.

Later still in the development section, the soloist transforms it again with an intricately ornamented, double-stopped variation. The violin’s second theme, begun in its warm lower register, retains its wistful nature. Much later in the poignant recapitulation section, the principal theme is beautifully adopted by the solo flute.

The exquisite second-movement “Canzonetta” (“little song”) in G minor — Tchaikovsky’s one-day miracle — blends the melancholy colors of woodwinds with the violin. Tchaikovsky scholar David Brown suggests it reflects the composer’s homesickness during his self-imposed exile from Russia. Rather than ending, it rises on a two-note sighing motive and then explodes into the Allegro vivacissimo finale.

In this hearty rondo inspired by Russian folk dance, Tchaikovsky finally lets the soloist fly. He alternates two contrasting themes: the first a high-spirited scamper; the second a slower, downward-drooping melody that shows off the violin’s earthy low register and also features a nostalgic dialogue with woodwind solos. At the close, the dance keeps accelerating to a breathless finish.

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra website