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CD Review

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky

Canary 4
  • Gang Chen & Zhanhao He: The Butterfly Lovers' Concerto
  • Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto
Gil Shaham, violin
Singapore Symphony Orchestra/Lan Shui
Canary Classics CC04
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The reference violinist for the lovely Butterfly Lovers' Concerto has to this point been Takako Nishizaki, who has recorded it a number of times on Naxos and affiliated labels. Any of her versions are worth hearing. The same can be said of anything Gil Shaham decides to set down. Canary Classics could just as easily be called "Shaham and Friends", but has given him – and his family – a chance to record whatever they want. When you are dealing with an artist of this talent, that's fine by me.

The Butterfly Lovers' Concerto is played all over China and Asia, but gets precious little exposure here. The excuse used to be some blabber about "socialist realism" in music, but there's really no reason not to play it now. It really does sound like a film score, which will work for it, not against it. It also features a hedonistically beautiful violin part, serving as both soloist and narrator of this ancient Chinese tale. Takako Nishizaki and Shaham are obviously two very different artists; perhaps the former sounds a bit more "Asian" (yes, I'm aware of how horrible that sounds). This is as good a time as any to point out that I am Asian-American, and that picking the more "authentic" sound would probably take me to Naxos with James Judd conducting. But that's a very small part of the decision, because not only does Shaham play magnificently in his own right, he has the more idiomatic orchestra, and a far more substantial coupling to conclude the disc.

Nishizaki's Naxos disc with Judd gave us a set of decent arrangements by Peter Breiner, which are musically irrelevant to the extreme. Gil Shaham gives us his second go at the Tchaikovsky, a far more important document. When he first recorded this great concerto, he was a young artist on DG, and aided by the support of the Philharmonia Orchestra under Giuseppe Sinopoli. I love that version, and I love this one too. Shaham was then and is now a sensational artist, one who elevates masterpieces like this through the sheer intelligence of his music-making. Recorded in 2004, over 11 years after his first take, the violinist really allows the music more breathing room. The disc timings are actually faster under Sinopoli on DG, but pay that no mind. The Canary version feels swifter, more urgent, because of the real attention that is lavished on phrasing each of Tchaikovsky's melodies in the most effortless way possible. I prefer the Philharmonia on DG over the Singapore forces featured here, but the preference is a slim one. Both readings are worth owning, but this disc demands consideration for shining genuine light on two great concertos.

Copyright © 2014, Brian Wigman

Trumpet