Our conductor is Tugan Sokhiev, from Ossetia (think, Gergiev?). By all accounts he is someone to watch ... or even better, to whom we may now listen on a new classical disc. He is music director in Toulouse, following on the departure of long-time director Michel Plasson. Sokhiev did a first disc on the Naïve label that combined really stellar, compelling readings of the Mussorgsky-Ravel Pictures, and Tchaikovsky's fourth symphony.
On this disc Sokhiev and the Toulouse band are joined by fiddler Genevieve Laurenceau, who has a rather distinguished pedigree herself; though she has not yet appeared all that much in the USA classical catalogs. She studied and/or coached with violin pedagogues like Wolfgang Marschner and Zhakar Bron and Jean-Jacques Kantorow. She won a few fiddle competitions, one of which financed her recording of violin/piano music. She holds both violin concertos and chamber music in her active repertoire. She is guest professor in the UK where she also collaborates with Stephen Kovacevich. Since 2007, she has been concertmaster in Toulouse. She plays a Stradivarius fiddle, dated 1682.
By way of fair disclosure, let me say that I like the second Prokofiev fiddle concerto somewhat less than the first. But, I must say - this recording really puts it across, drenched in Slavic lyricism - pretty much no holds barred. All the modernish chromatics are there in intervals and harmonies and passages of busy elaboration or contrast; but the lasting, musical deep impression is a Hot Samovar-toned way with the fiddle's notes and phrases: the Stradivarius moved to constant Slavic song.
Tugan Sokhiev proves himself a most attuned musical partner to Laurenceau. He, too, lives, breaths, and moves forward in the flow and sweetness of Prokofiev's deep song. For listeners who earlier got to know him by way of the stunningly virtuosic previous disc of Mussorgsky-Ravel and Tchaikovsky, Sokhiev and the Toulouse players sound chastely restrained and refined by comparison. It is as if everybody is going to make up in tonal colors and melody, what this second disc in comparison to the earlier one, lacks in brilliance and sizzle. The concluding fast movement of the concerto moves along; but in retrospect still sounds in memory as all involved are more interested in revealing all manner of musical detail, though not at the expense of the last movement's big picture? The partnership is more intimate and flexible; less seeking for grandstand musical moments, than a sort of persistent musical duo, hand in hand in velvet gloves. The proto-Spanish flavors come through, subtly. Russia by way of France sounds nearer to Spain. Flamenco dance forms are not as far removed from the concerto as I may have assumed to date?
To wrap up this disc, we come to the Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances, composed late in his career.
The Sokhiev way with the opening pages again emphasizes clarity, fluency, and tonal colors. Then the wider orchestra joins in, and we begin to get the customary energy we often hear in this work. But the vigor is not all collapsed into flash; colors remain pertinent, vivid. A sort of George Szell-like balance, an appreciative, clear-eyed involvement with the score, permeates all departments. Woodwinds have a sweet, musing way in the quiet interludes. Melodies sound genuinely Slavic, indigenous, folk-ish. Some inflections actually sound out in passing as hints of George Gershwin and similar. Who knew? Especially in Rachmaninoff?
My keeper shelf touchstones in the symphonic dances have been Petrenko/Liverpool, Eiji Oeu/Minnesota, and Ashkenazy/Amsterdam. Sokhiev makes a somewhat counterbalancing keeper shelf companion - though, like Ashkenazy, Sokhiev seems to have a sweet musical internalization of Slavic lyricism. So everything is not boiled down to contrasts.
Nevertheless, these symphonic dances probably sound less bombastic than many readings in the catalog. If Capriccio-Italien-Tchaikovsky flair has previously put you off this work, you may well find that Sokhiev and Toulouse restore and reveal its depths and loveliness without shorting the rhythmic vitality and dance-formed flow. All is songful, as in the preceding Prokofiev violin concerto; and the musical finesse sounds nearly bottomless.
Goodness, what will Sokhiev and Toulouse do next? I'm looking forward to hearing it. Stars.