Can a good workman give credit to his tools? According to the young champion violinist Ray Chen, they can. They say that recordings, books, films and paintings don’t happen by themselves, and he’s not about to hog all of the credit for Tchaikovsky/Mendelssohn Violin Concertos, his second recording. “Music is teamwork,” Chen is quoted in saying in the liner notes. “It only exists in the space between people.” To sharpen his words, it exists in the space between lots of things. For one thing, Chen has been loaned two Stradivariuses, probably making him the envy of many a stringed musician. Secondly, he had conductor Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra at his disposal for the recording of Tchaikovsky/Mendelssohn Violin Concertos. And lastly, there are the two compositions at hand, a lifeline back to the days when violin concertos were grand scale works that weren’t afraid to sound as big as they dreamed. Ray Chen has won two separate competitions with performances of Tchaikovsky’s “Concerto for violin and orchestra in D major, op.35” and Mendelssohn’s “Concerto for violin and orchestra in E minor, op.64”, causing him to be the slightest bit hesitant in pinpointing why he clinched both compositions so well: “Maybe I bring something new and fresh to them.”
The Mendelssohn E-minor work got him top honors at the 2008 Yehudi Menuhin International Competition for Young Violinists. He cinched the Tchaikovsky concerto in 2009 at the Queen Elisabeth Competition. Now just barely of legal drinking age in the states, Ray Chen has recorded both of the works that launched his career. They are two entirely different concertos from two different musical minds. You could even get away with saying that one is more manic-depressive than the other, though that would be a separate 500-word essay on its own. The beauty of a classical recording is that these gaps can be bridged with finesse, and Tchaikovsky/Mendelssohn Violin Concertos makes good on that. The most important factors are that Ray Chen sounds self-assured, the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra never falters, and that the whole thing never bores you.
If you need a little background on these composers, just know that Tchaikovsky sits more in the Romantic era of the two individuals. He obeys many of the rules set before him, like using the orchestra to state the theme and not letting the soloist enter until business has been taken care of. The first and third movements are the speedier ones, the last borrowing from a peasant dance and maybe even offering distant echoes of “The Nutcracker”. And at 36 minutes, it’s quite lengthy. Felix Mendelssohn has been more of an enigma for musical historians—a college professor of mine would snicker while discussing the contrary elements of “Elijah”—give the guy a break—often embodying Classical and Romantic traits within one movement. Right in the first five seconds of “Concerto for violin and orchestra in E minor, op.64” the lead instrument shows the way, rather than letting the orchestra set the scene. That comes later. And though Tchaikovsky had to deal with being a homosexual in 19th century Russia, Mendelssohn seemed to have more to be melancholic about with his work here. It could come from the whole Christian vs. Jewish inner-conflict. We all have our struggles, right?
Not Ray Chen. Not now. Everything seems to be falling into place for this young talent, and Tchaikovsky/Mendelssohn Violin Concertos shows us that he is, in fact, deserving of the praise. Sure, he has a lot of living, learning and playing yet to come. But he also gave us a really great recording to enjoy.
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