Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Violin Concerto No. 2 Op.129 (1967) [36:17]
Pyotr Il'yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Violin Concerto in D major Op.35 (1881) [38:04]
Linus Roth (violin)
London Symphony Orchestra /Thomas Sanderling
rec. 2-4 May 2016, St. Luke's Church, London, England

This is the second disc of concerti played by Linus Roth on Challenge Classics that I have reviewed. Interestingly, my feelings for this new recording closely mirror the opinions I formed previously. Without doubt, Roth is a serious and thoughtful musician with a technical gift that allows him to be unfazed by even the most demanding writing. On the earlier disc my sense was that the Britten concerto served as a filler for the Weinberg. Fine though the former was, I had a distinct feeling that Roth was more fully engaged with the latter. Here I feel much the same. The Shostakovich is getting a strongly individual and brooding reading. The Tchaikovsky is good for sure but offers little to challenge established favourite versions.

On this disc, Roth is partnered by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Thomas Sanderling, and recorded in multi-channel SACD sound by Challenge Classics. I listened to the stereo SACD layer and I have to say the sound is excellent. The orchestra surrounds the soloist without hemming him in, orchestral detail is weighty without being synthetically highlighted. The wide range of tone Roth draws from his "Dancla" Stradivarius is beautifully caught. Indeed, this is as fine a concerto recording as I have heard in recent times. The disc opens with the second Shostakovich violin concerto. This is a darkly sombre work placed between the 13th and 14th Symphonies, just three opus numbers after the similarly elusive 2nd Cello concerto. Thomas Sanderling is quoted in the liner as saying of the final movement: "some people may think [it is] funny or 'humoresque'. It is not! As often with Shostakovich it is making fun on the surface but deep down contains a lot of suffering and pain." Not just in the finale but throughout Roth and Sanderling underline the harshness of the emotional landscape. That said, I am not sure anyone ever considered the closing movement funny ha-ha. I also do think this performance misses an opportunity to blur the divide between comic and tragic by emphasising the latter with little or no expression of the former.

How soloists handle the extended cadenza is telling. Lydia Mordkovitch's well-respected Chandos recording still sounds very well as a recording. I have to say I find her greater range more disturbing and therefore more effective. Roth plays magnificently but it is a case of a single through thought. Without doubt this is a wholly valid approach but if pushed I would prefer the more mercurial Mordkovitch, and goodness me, didn't the SNO play well for Neeme Järvi back then! Tellingly - and for once this is a valid reflection on the basic approach too - Roth takes substantially more time over every movement than Mordkovitch. The three movements in comparison are (Roth first): 15:16/13:02, 11:21/9:35, 9:40/8:11. The Boosey & Hawkes score lists the timing as 29 minutes. Roth is around 36 and Mordkovitch just over 30. For other comparisons, dedicatee David Oistrakh with Kondrashin and Moscow PO take just over 29 minutes, Kremer in Boston 32, Sitkovetsky with the BBC SO just over 30, Vengerov with Rostropovitch and the LSO 33. So Roth is clearly making quite an individual statement. The more I have listened to this recording, the more it has impressed me interpretatively as well technically. Certainly, its stature as a work grows; the first concerto remains the more "popular" but this is a hugely impressive composition. One feature of this work I had forgotten is the remarkable brilliance of Shostakovich's scoring, not because it is large or overtly virtuosic but in fact the reverse. He uses in essence a near-classical orchestra, just double woodwind with no brass except four horns. The only non-classical element is the inclusion of a contra-bassoon and a significant part for tom-toms as the only percussion over and above timpani.

As soon as the Tchaikovsky concerto starts, it is clear Roth has adapted his tone to match the different mood of the earlier work. Here Roth allows his violin to sing and he produces a lovely voluptuous tone aided by an intense singing vibrato. But again he seems to be striving for a weighty approach and if it convinced me in the Shostakovich, it does not in the Tchaikovsky. The opening movement is marked Allegro moderato. Sanderling/Roth make the most of the moderato marking. In the many many versions of this work I know, I cannot find another where the first movement is longer than the 20:26 taken here. Again superb playing and engineering from all concerned but this does lumber. A little-remembered first recording from Itzhak Perlman in the mid-sixties takes just over seventeen. Wow, wasn't Perlman an overtly brilliant player in his youth? Most performances seem to lie in the 17-18 minute bracket, although Šporcl and Vengerov break 19 minutes. Part of the problem is Sanderling's accompaniment. Where his monolithic approach paid dividends in the Shostakovich, here there is a lack of imagination in the phrasing - and fantasy throughout - that makes the sterling efforts of the LSO stay resolutely pedestrian. There are moments in this where there needs to be a sense of the orchestra being unleashed in a burst of unfettered exuberance; Sanderling keeps them under control.

Great significance is made in the liner notes and in the publicity for this disc that Roth is playing "the original version" of the concerto. Before you start leaping for your scores in the hope of discovering substantial differences - even possibly unknown passages or earlier incarnations - stop! Original version here means reinstating a handful of phrasing marks, occasionally reinstating octave alterations and leaving the mute on throughout the central Canzonetta. The latter does make a significant tonal impact and Roth plays this quite beautifully with a tenderly inward quality. But then again so do many other great players, and Roth is not the first to leave the mute on throughout. Unless there is in essence new material, making claims for authenticity based on the following of manuscript markings is perilous. Slurs or phrasing marks in music are indications of possible musical choices. If you look at any edition of any score that is not specifically urtext, you will see choices made by that editor that reflect that person's ideas and preferences. As a player you then decide what works for you with that piece. I do not believe for a second that Tchaikovsky put a slur in the piece expecting it to be slavishly reproduced for all time. This approach also makes a performance a hostage to fortune elsewhere: a phrase might be carefully reproduced but can the same be said of every dynamic or articulation? Here's an oddity - in the first big orchestral tutti - around the 7:30 mark [just before rehearsal letter F in my score]. The timpanist decides to follow the step-wise bass line as opposed to the printed tonic/dominant. Great fun if you like that kind of thing, which I do, but rather destroys the authenticity claim.

As mentioned, the Canzonetta gets a beautifully rapt performance with lovely solo woodwind contributions. But again the finale significantly lacks the vivacissimo the score indicates. Aaron Rosand's wonderfully eccentric performance on an old Vox Turnabout disc features a huge whooping glissando in this movement that might never feature in any edition of this score ever but, by goodness, it taps into the festive spirit of the work. Here it is not a case that Roth is substantively slower, although his performance is toward the slower end of average. It is more a case of spirit. The playfulness and liveliness implicit in that vivacissimo instruction is not something he chooses to do, and the rather straight Sanderling is a willing partner in that approach. Certainly this is not an overtly Romantic reading. I am sure there will be listeners who respond to this more objective approach in a work that can be over-sentimentalised.

A word here for the liner notes. Recently, discs I have reviewed have been burdened by notes of next to no worth. How rewarding and enjoyable then to have the high-quality production, which this Challenge Classics disc is, backed up by a detailed and well-written comments (in English and German only). The "original version" details of the Tchaikovsky are explained, including musical examples and a very interesting examination of the work's reception. as well as Eduard Hanslick's infamous critique describing the piece as "stinking to the ear". So, a disc of strongly individual performances supported by excellent recording and documentation. Personally, I would not choose this version of the Tchaikovsky over any previously favoured version but the Shostakovich offers convincing alternatives to standard interpretations.

Nick Barnard

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