Well, this disc is most welcome. It seems to be aimed at mainly presenting DGG's newest Armenian wunderkind fiddle player, Simonyan. But as it turns out, Simonyan and his fiddle are not the only stunning aspects of the disc. The youngest Jarvi in the apparent family conducting dynasty is also in extremely good form. The LSO again shows itself to be capable of quite telling, incisive playing, even in the orchestra accompaniments to two fiddle concertos.
I cannot quite recall if anybody has ever before released the Khachiturian and Samuel Barber fiddle concertos, together on one disc, or not. My guess is, not. They make an interesting coupling, although I still was not completely convinced about the pairing, even by the end of this estimable disc.
DGG has bothered to give all the musicians very good sound throughout. The LSO home base venue at St. Luke's augurs well for both concertos. So, no complaints ... well, maybe except ... this would be a demonstration multi-channel SACD disc, indeed.
Also no complaints about the instrument for which each composer wrote a concerto. This fiddle is a modern violin made by Christophe Landon, now played often by the soloist. It is a big tonal presence, though retains something of a modern edge as it etches intervals in a given phrase without deconstructing the momentum or the phrase, given whole.
Benchmark recordings of the Khachaturian concerto on my shelves have been David Oistrakh and Henryk Szyrng with Dorati. I have other performances, and always end up coming back to these two. I honestly can add Simonyan and KJarvi with LSO to the two high marks. KJ is taking the fiddle accompaniment very much to heart, and he simply has the LSO join his fiddle soloist in giving off, not only consistent virtuoso flash and pop, but also loads of folk tonal colors and genuine Armenian soul that never gets sappy. At every appropriate musical moment, Simonyan, KJ, and the LSO take their chance to inflect the shifting tempo, in meaningful paragraphs, the flow and forward momentum always stepping smartly out ahead. I really like my other two benchmark recordings, but I don't think the other two fiddlers have managed the middle slow movement with such a mix of feeling, color, and unanimity between soloist, conductor, and band as have the musicians at hand. Nobody lets the typical brash drive in Khachaturian go completely over the edge into kitsch, either. As to the new Armenian fiddle cadenza imported into the concerto? Well, it gets a bit Bartokian-Hungarian in some moments, but my ears are willing to grant that it just might have a lasting place as an enhancement, not just an experiment in musical tailcoating. Simonyan gets credit for trying his best to make the cadenza fit with the rest of the first movement, in color, assertiveness, and virtuosity.
I am still trying to finish loving the Samuel Barber concerto. Perlman and Hilary Hahn and James Ehnes are my models. All the players who put Khachaturian across so well give Barber their very best. I think I hear some passing phrases which have a slightly Slavic tinge, not just a fresh-faced young American-nation shape. But this might also be taken as revealing the updated folk color roots and Romantic fiddle concerto aspirations reconsidered which each composer pressed forward in their respective individual styles. It may be technically impossible, for example, to say precisely where a distinctive American melody and harmony take off or consolidate, arising from multiple immigrant (including African or eastern) roots, origins, and influences? At the very least, this reading is a powerful and alert one, even if Barber comes off as a bit more of a melting pot cultural icon, than in my other three models.
To wrap up the disc, we are given the ubiquitous Barber Adagio for strings. This could easily devolve into a problem, since we have heard it almost too often as a soundtrack for both deeply tragic, as well as faintly trivial, occasions. It is finely judged, as things turn out. Again KJ and the LSO simply convince by taking the music so freshly to heart that one is more than grateful to hear it, one more time. Tempo strikes an effective balance between giving those plaintive, throbbing, pulsing Barber string lines enough time to sing out, while still keeping the momentum and flow ebbing forward. This reading of the Adagio may have nearly as much muscle as it does sad heart. If you happen to be a listener who has given the Adagio up for lost and totally limp, sentimentalized mush, you may find this reading redeeming its sound, its message to very good effect.
All told, one hopes to always hear fiddle and other concertos played with the energy, close attention, and apt involvement that both composers get on this disc. Of the more recent fiddle discs, this one is a standout, rather a surprise, too, as was the disc of Szymanowski concertos (with Britten!) we got from Frank Peter Zimmerman (Sony). Do give each of these discs a chance. Nobody will be all that surprised if you end up keeping one or both. Not just for fiddle enthusiasts. Five stars - Mikhail Simonyan, Kristian Jarvi, LSO, DGG.