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Pyotr Ilych TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35 (1878) [34:34]
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Violin Concerto, Op. 14 (1939) [23:33]
Johan Dalene (violin)
Norrköping Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Blendulf
rec. 2019, Louis de Geer Concert Hall, Norrköping, Sweden
BIS SACD BIS2440 [58:47]

Many recordings are difficult to review, and that can be for any number of reasons. This one, on the other hand, was blissfully simple.

Swedish violinist, Johan Dalene, was born in 2000, and was therefore 17 or 18 when these concertos were recorded. He took up the violin at the age of 4 and apparently played his first concerto engagement three years later. A BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist, he has done the rounds of international competitions and won more than one. He can be added, then, to the astonishing number of brilliant young instrumentalists. Let us hope there is room for them all.

Three things strike this listener about Dalene. First of all, he produces a beautiful, rich, sound – the instrument really sings. Second, and no surprise, the technical demands of these two works hold no fear for him. Third, his playing, though full of individual character, is refreshingly direct and simple, as if his primary aim is to fulfil the wishes of the composer. The first movement of the Tchaikovsky therefore emerges in all its melodic splendour, and following the score one notes the care taken to follow the composer’s markings. This applies not only to dynamics, but also to tempo. The movement is marked Allegro moderato with a crotchet metronome mark of 126. Thereafter, however, there are numerous indications of slight variations of pace. This team respects them all, to the benefit of the movement’s structure. There is a particularly thoughtful reading of the cadenza, complete with a couple of minor embellishments which may be Dalene’s own ideas or may indeed be present in a different edition of the score from my Breitkopf. The gentle melancholy of the slow movement is beautifully brought out, and the finale is brilliant. Tchaikovsky frequently repeats tiny melodic fragments in this movement, to the point that a previous generation of violinists thought they knew better and settled on a number of tiny cuts. I’m pleased to say that this disfiguring trend is now disappearing and that Dalene plays everything as written. The close of the concerto is as exciting as you will hear anywhere.

The same set of virtues are to be found in the performance of the Barber. The glorious opening melody is only one of a series of gorgeous tunes that remind us how courageous Barber was, in 1939, to go so radically against the grain of much of what was happening in music at that time. Listeners resistant to modernist trends and who do not already know the composer need have no fear. All three movements, including the tiny but fiendishly difficult finale, play to the strengths of this remarkable young soloist.

Both works are skilfully scored, even if the soloist is very much the star of the show. The Norrköping Symphony Orchestra does everything required of it, and Daniel Blendulf is a most capable accompanist. I’m impatient to hear the team in purely orchestral repertoire.

Recording and production values are as high as one expects from Bis, and anyone wanting this interesting and, I think, rare coupling, should not hesitate. Otherwise, the classic choice in the Barber concerto is Isaac Stern with Bernstein on Sony, and there is a wisdom and a rightness about that reading that cannot be ignored. I like very much the performance by James Buswell and Marin Alsop on Naxos. (Is this the violinist who, as James Oliver Buswell IV, recorded Vaughan Williams with Previn so many decades ago?) As for the Tchaikovsky, most readers will have their own favourites and will be unwilling to relinquish them. I grew up with Zukerman and Antal Dorati on Sony, but recently have been converted to performances such as that by Lisa Batiashvili (DG) and Vilde Frang, another youngster, on Warner. I have to part company with many when it comes to the widely praised reading by Patricia Kopatchinskaja (Sony). To try a new approach to a ubiquitous concerto is obviously to be praised, but I find her expressive gestures distort the work to a grotesque extent. In this she is ably assisted by Currentzis. I believe that a simpler tactic that avoids excess can more successfully deliver the composer’s message. Fine performers can achieve this without compromising their own character. In this, Johan Dalene and Daniel Blendulf are the genuine article.

William Hedley

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