The Delos label’s new disc of Tchaikovsky’s complete works for violin and piano delivers consistently excellent interpretations of a frequently misunderstood composer. Sasha Rozhdestvensky’s playing has those qualities that seem to come best from Russian violinists: velvety dark lows, lyricism dripping with expression, and virtuosic ease that maintains a raw emotional state. Pianist Josiane Marfurt contributes a crystal clear clarity of voices and sensitivity to each new musical moment. The recording maintains a sense of spontaneity and in-the-moment interaction all too frequently lost in the studio.
The opening track, Sérénade Mélancolique, Op. 26, is convincing proof of the duo’s ability to capture the changing moods Tchaikovsky wrote. In the opening, Rozhdestvensky is able to achieve a dark and despondent tone with an incredible soft touch on the violin. As the music moves to a lighter mood, Rozhdestvensky’s tone changes perfectly to match the music, and the eventual reaches into the upper extremes of the instrument are bursting with exuberance while maintaining a sensitivity to the music. Marfurt matches these changes in tone on the piano, and provides a clear build-up towards the climactic moments, playing with a keen sense of structure as well as attention to each detail.
Valse-Scherzo, Op. 34 displays the duo’s ability for just the right of push and pull in tempo that is too often left out of studio recordings. This gives the piece just the right amount of bounce and vibrancy. Hearing Rozhdestvensky’s very deliberate bowing provides a good lesson to any musician in the fine art of articulation. While he pulls off the virtuosic passages with an effortless ease, Rozhdestvensky still manages to give the music the right slightly frantic character it needs.
It’s often forgotten that Tchaikovsky composed quite a few operas of high quality that unfortunately are rarely performed today. Méditation, the first movement of Souvenir d’un lieu cher, Op. 42, is a reminder of the composer’s ability to create lengthy singing melodies that seem to float in the air, and to imbue his music with a sense of dramatic narrative. Rozhdestvensky’s playing does great justice to the beautiful melodic line, conveying the right amount of emotion without overdoing it and knowing when to reach a climax and when to back off. As a sidenote, every time I listen to Tchaikovsky I’m reminded of his strong influence on so many different composers. This time I noticed some definite influence on Russian modernist Roslavets’ own Meditation for Cello and Piano, particularly the lengthy melodic ascent. Tchaikovsky’s compositions are of such high professional quality that lessons can be drawn from their techniques in so many different ways.
While every track on this disc is well done, I was particularly struck by the boldness of the performance of Andante funebre e doloroso ma con moto, Op. 30. Rozhdestvensky and Marfurt were unafraid to let each musical gesture just hang out in the open, whether it be a held note from either instrument or a pizzicato scale on the violin. There are times when the performer’s job is in a sense to “get out of the way” of the composer’s ideas, and on this excellent piece the duo does just that.
Speaking of getting out of the way of the composer: too often I find CD liner notes on Russian composers to be downright horrible misinterpretations and factually inaccurate too boot. This is owing to the fact that Russian music doesn’t fit into the dominant German narrative on 19th century music, as well as to the reinterpretation of 20th history to fit the conclusion that American capitalism is the best of all possible worlds. Lindsay Koob’s CD notes are refreshingly accurate in significant aspects, debunking many of the silly myths about Tchaikovsky and presenting him as his own person coming out of his own particular musical circumstances. As such, they are a contribution to respecting Russian music on its own terms and valuing its composers’ contributions. One small criticism I would make is that there is still a bit too much emphasis on Tchaikovsky’s emotional sentimentality. While undoubtedly this is a great quality to the composer’s music, it’s important to understand that Tchaikovsky was above all else a high-caliber professional, capable of composing in every genre and creating just the right sounds and emotions out the instruments at the right moments. His favorite composer was in fact Mozart, and one can detect this in the perfection of form. The high quality of every piece on this disc is evidence of this.
A final note on the recording: this disc is a real treat in its clarity, interpretive sensitivity, and emotional rawness. It’s interesting to note that Rozhdestvensky focuses much of his energy on contemporary music, collaborating with several of today’s important new composers, and also performs in Ambar and Paris Gotan Trio, both traditional Latin American instrumental groups. The freshness with which he approaches Tchaikovsky’s music gives this disc the right feel of exploration and spontaneity. I will be keeping Delos’ release of Tchaikovsky’s complete works for violin and piano on regular rotation for my own enjoyment, as well as a using it as a great reference point of an outstanding composer.
Tchaikovsky: Complete Works for Violin & Piano, Sasha Rozhdestvensky (violin), Josiane Marfurt (piano) – Delos Recordings – Buy it on Amazon
David Pearson is a saxophonist residing in NYC.