Tchaikovsky, Chen/He

COMPOSERS: Chen/He,Tchaikovsky
LABELS: Canary Classics
ALBUM TITLE: The Butterfly Lovers
WORKS: Violin Concerto, Op. 35
Violin Concerto (The Butterfly Lovers)

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PERFORMER: Gil Shaham (violin);
Singapore SO/Lan Shui

CATALOGUE NO: CC 04
There could be no sweeter, if (at 27 minutes) extended, preface to the more thoughtfully crafted lyric flow of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto than The Butterfly Lovers. This highly programmatic, ballet-friendly concerto has an interesting history: its collaborators, composition student Chen Gang and violinist He Zhanhao, enjoyed widespread acclaim after the 1959 Shanghai premiere before Chen was thrown into prison during the Cultural Revolution for pedalling ‘bourgeois poison’. Having enjoyed underground cult status, the work has since soared again in China, like the transformed star-crossed lovers of its ancient story. Its use of the pentatonic scale inevitably links it to other folk-style inspirations, so any resemblance to Grieg’s ‘Morning’ and Vaughan Williams’s Lark Ascending (in the brief first movement cadenza) are presumably coincidental. More significantly, the work is clearly scored and succinctly shaped. Gil Shaham incorporates the distinctive portamento of the erhu, the Chinese two-string fiddle, into his bold style and the orchestra glows throughout.

The Singapore strings make a personable start, too, to the Tchaikovsky Concerto, nicely moulded throughout by Lan Shui, though the crucial woodwind solos and counterpoints have less character and are placed further back in the synthetic but vivid sound-picture. Shaham draws on his distinctive darker tones and bright upper register with infallible musicality, and has an uncanny ability to change colour and dynamic on a single note. Less probing than Julia Fischer earlier this year (on PentaTone), he compensates with several sheer adrenaline charges in the outer movements.

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David Nice