This is a 1985 Decca recording, re-released by Philips in 2001. It features a 25 year old Viktoria Mullova, recorded only a couple of years after her defection from the Soviet Union.
In structure, the two concertos are rather similar, but both are entirely original, important works. If we allow that playing an instrument requires craftsmanship in handling the instrument and artistry in interpreting the work performed, effectively communicating the emotions the performer finds there, on listening to these tracks we quickly conclude that in 1985 Mullova was already at the top of her form. Established Mullova fans (I definitely count myself) will be particularly delighted to find several passages of what her husband, cellist Matthew Barley, has aptly described as ‘violin pyrotechnics’.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra, under Seiji Ozawa, is effective in providing the distinctive tones of Tchaikovsky and Sibelius; primarily through the string sections, but also the woodwind, especially in the Tchaikovsky, and some fine musicianship is heard there too. The pairing of orchestra and soloist works well. This is a superb recording.
Or it surely was. My copy (received as a present, so not a ‘Verified Purchase’, but bought brand new from Amazon, sealed in cellophane) has several blemishes in the early minutes of the Tchaikovsky, and the whole lacks the crispness and sparkle that we expect in this digital age. The recording badly needs, and richly deserves, re-mastering.
It would help if the three-language CD booklet, with its pedestrian, catalogue-style description of the two works and single black and white portraits of Mullova, Ozawa, Sibelius and Tchaikovsky, was also upgraded.
But everything other than the music is by the way, and for as long as this issue of the performances is all that is available to us I will happily keep on playing it.
This well recorded disc from 1985 delivers impressive readings of both of these works. Mullova takes a very individual view of these concertos and has the technical assurance to communicate her view with compelling certainty.
The Tchaikovsky concerto is played in the full uncut version that was written by the composer. This is now becoming more common but in 1985 was still unusual enough to warrant comment. By playing the notes as Tchaikovsky had intended Mullova signals a very serious intent which she carries out throughout these two concertos. The Tchaikovsky recording for instance, refuses to whip up extra excitement in any of the passages where one has got used to increase, but unwritten, tempos. She chooses a tempo that she feels to be the correct one and then sticks to it. This may seem pedantic as described here, but on the disc the performance achieves a compelling level of determination, of a musical journey which will undoubtedly reach its destination. Needless to say the final movement is played without undue flashy display and the slow movement is both concentrated and serene rather than warmly passionate.
Much the same can be said of the Sibelius concerto. In this, there are numerous parts where the most accomplished technicians will accelerate such as the conclusions of the two outer movement. The slow movement is often a passionate experience. Mullova, once more, goes for steadiness which remorselessly builds to inevitable climatic points. The slow movement is cool rather than warm in its expression.
These are very individual readings. Ozawa matched Mullova precisely and one feels considerable rapport between the two. The recordings are good but the bass drum has a tendency towards being indistinct in impact, being a touch boomy, but this is not sufficient to cause undue concern. The violin is well balanced in the sound mix.
I would suggest that these are uncommonly powerful and compelling readings of both works. Because of their individuality they may be more suitable for collectors who collect multiple versions for comparison but purchasers of single versions should still find this especially effective if not quite as expected as an interpretation.
Mullova's very focussed, refined, and even austere style of playing, fits very well with Sibelius' concerto which is a touchstone work for interpretative power of any violinist. Mullova seems totally in tune with the soul of the music and delivers, unsentimental, yet deeply affecting performance. Tchaikovsky's concerto is equally outstanding. It's not a classic heart-on-sleeve performance, but intensely felt and solid performance which explores a different possibility of interpretation.