DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH (1906 – 1975): Violin Concerto No. 2, Opus 129 and PYOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY (1840 – 1893): Violin Concerto, Opus 35—Linus Roth, violin; London Symphony Orchestra; Thomas Sanderling, conductor [Recorded at LSO St. Luke’s, London, UK, 2 – 4 May 2016; Challenge Classics CC72689; 1 SACD, 74:25; Available from Challenge Records, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]
The Serbian poet Dejan Stojanović wrote in his poem ‘Dancing of Sounds’ that ‘There is no competition of sounds / Between a nightingale and a violin.’ When he penned these words, Stojanović had perhaps never heard the playing of German violinist Linus Roth, so it is likely that he did not realize how insightful his words are. Simply put, to hear Roth play is to experience one of Art’s greatest phenomena, a human equivalent of birdsong echoing through a wood and the roar of Niagara. From the violin in his hands, the 1703 Stradivarius instrument played in years past by Jean Baptiste Charles Dancla and Nathan Milstein, Roth cajoles sounds that recall not only the playing of these legendary forebears [one of Dancla’s most precocious pupils, Maud Powell, left a legacy of recordings said by contemporaries to enshrine vital elements of Dancla’s technique] but also, more pointedly, the mesmerizing tones of Austrian violinist Wolfgang Schneiderhan and the disarming lyricism of Schneiderhan’s wife, soprano Irmgard Seefried. Perhaps it is too clichéd to suggest that Roth’s playing ‘sings,’ but his violin is truly the voice of artistry that encompasses understanding of the most intimate implications of musical communication. As his well-documented espousal of the nearly-forgotten music of Mieczysław Weinberg has revealed, Roth clearly perceives his responsibility as one of the Twenty-First Century’s most gifted violinists as extending beyond the interpretation of composers’ music to acting as a direct link between composers and listeners, whether they are separated by a fortnight or a century. Here focusing his artistry on concerti by Dmitri Shostakovich and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in performances preserved in sound of sparkling clarity, Roth bares the souls of both works, playing them as freshly as though the ink on the scores were still wet. Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky are now viewed from a post-Freudian perspective as composers with proverbial ‘baggage,’ but Roth frees these concerti from anachronistic pseudo-psychological associations. His formula is disarmingly simple: combine great music with great music making, and all contexts and subtexts become irrelevant.
Formally premièred in 1967 by David Oistrakh, to whom the score was dedicated, and the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, the second of Shostakovich’s two remarkable concerti for violin and orchestra (Opus 129) was the last of the composer’s six concerti, completing the symmetry of the pairs of concerti for cello and piano. The base key of Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 2, C♯ minor, has prompted comparisons with other significant works with the same tonal foundation, not least Beethoven’s powerful Opus 131 String Quartet, but Shostakovich’s music is utterly original. The dialogues that the composer created between soloist and orchestra are sometimes stunningly creative but are unfailingly integrated into the Concerto’s flow. There are virtually always suggestions of anxiety, ambiguity, and stark expressive candor in Shostakovich’s music, but performances that emphasize these qualities do so at the expense of the brighter moods that emerge when allowed to penetrate the surface. At its most powerful, Roth’s playing of the Shostakovich Concerto maintains a concentrated lightness, a vein of unaffected humility amidst the cyclonic virtuosity. In the Concerto’s opening Moderato movement, this is manifested most rewardingly in the violinist’s subtle handling of the thematic continuity with which Shostakovich manipulated the sonata form that constitutes the music’s skeleton. Roth’s individual style of playing bears little resemblance to that of David Oistrakh, but the younger musician shares with his Ukrainian predecessor an uncanny capacity for spotlighting melody, a skill that Roth exercises without placing a single accent contrary to the score’s indications.
The meandering course of the Adagio movement is followed by Roth with a gossamer tread that gives the music a dream-like aura. Returning to Stojanović’s analogy, the violin is here a weary nightingale greeting the dawn, its song subdued by its exhausting nocturnal vigil. Things are rarely wholly as they initially seem in Shostakovich’s music, and there is a steely core that lurks in these bittersweet cadences like the blade beneath a matador’s muleta. Shostakovich crafted and Roth recreates a delicate but endearingly awkward pas de deux between slow movements from a Prokofiev symphony and a Bach partita: past and present embrace, first one and then the other lifted into view. Roth’s supple phrasing makes the transitions imperceptible. This is also true in the Concerto’s closing movement, in which Roth manages the shift from Adagio to Allegro—and the corresponding changes of mood—with irrepressible momentum and imagination. This is some of Shostakovich’s most exhilarating, spontaneous-sounding music, and it is a testament to Roth’s absorption of every detail of the composer’s writing that his performance exudes easy confidence. His connection with the music’s expressivity never disrupted by his often breathtaking feats of virtuosity, Roth exudes assurance in a piece in the performance of which many violinists rely upon arrogance.
In certain ways, the Russia into which Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born in 1840 was not markedly different from Russia in 2016. At the time of the composer’s birth in the town of Votkinsk in today’s Udmurt Republic, the doggedly conservative Tsar Nicholas I was in the middle of his three-decade reign, a period in which Russia was plagued by inner turmoil—at the time of his succession, the Decembrist revolt of 1825, the subject of an once-popular opera, threatened to prevent Nicholas from occupying the imperial throne vacated by one of his older brothers and refused by another—and a litany of ill-conceived foreign policies that politically and economically isolated the vast, fiercely proud nation. Isolation was likewise perhaps the single most defining aspect of Tchaikovsky’s life and musical career. His was a life that embodied the ambiguity of Francesco Maria Piave’s familiar description of Paris in his libretto for Verdi’s La traviata as ‘questo popoloso deserto che appellano Parigi.’ Reading the body of his correspondence that survived familial and governmental censorship, the Tchaikovsky who quickly emerges is a man whose existence could accurately be described as a populated desert, a life that was lonely and often distressingly solitary despite its extensive dramatis personæ.
The extent to which Tchaikovsky fell victim to the frequently hypocritical social conventions of his time continues to be questioned without hope of definitive resolution, but what cannot be doubted is that even an artist as important as Tchaikovsky would find today’s political climate in Russia little if any more hospitable than it was in 1893, when, under circumstances still debated by scholars, the composer’s life ended, perhaps at his own hand. Nevertheless, the kinship between Tchaikovsky’s life and Piave’s characterization of Parisian demimonde society in La traviata is analogous to the parallel between Twenty-First-Century perspectives on Tchaikovsky’s music and Maria Callas’s oft-quoted remark about attentive listeners finding the full spectrum of her artistry in her recordings. In music, knowledge is not always power; or not the sort of power that consistently proves beneficial, at any rate. That Tchaikovsky was homosexual is beyond doubt, but the notion that he was an archetypal ‘gay artist’ is a meaningless and frankly ill-considered application of modern sensibilities to a man whose manifest seriousness of purpose confirms to have been concerned with being a worthy heir to the legacy of Mozart, not with furthering a social agenda. Which are the passages in any of Tchaikovsky’s works that would miraculously be of lesser quality were it discovered that their creator was actually heterosexual? The tragedy of Tchaikovsky’s life is that he could not live openly, publicly following his heart’s lead, but the tragedy of his afterlife is that his music is now too often subjected to scrutiny based not upon its inherent quality but upon superfluous connotations. Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto is a masterpiece not by a gay composer but by a great one.
Composed in 1878 whilst Tchaikovsky sought refuge in Switzerland from his farcical marriage, the writing for the soloist in his Opus 35 Concerto was guided by Iosif Kotek, a violinist with a burgeoning reputation and Tchaikovsky’s pupil and probable paramour. A decade passed before the Concerto was published in full score and began to be widely established in the international repertory, a delay that now seems inexplicable, but, as was often the case, the quality of Tchaikovsky’s music was not immediately recognized. Subsequent generations of violinists have vindicated the Concerto and its sensitive composer, and Roth’s performance further honors Tchaikovsky’s genius. The technical demands of the Concerto’s Allegro moderato movement are near-demonic, but Roth tames even the most ferocious passages with playing that blends palpitating brilliance with astonishing calmness. This music has been recorded by many of the greatest violinists of the past century, and Roth here equals the best of their performances, recalling the majesty of David Oistrakh’s recording with Franz Konwitschny and Staatskapelle Dresden and the ebullience of Jascha Heifetz’s reading with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony. Unique to Roth’s performance is its prevailing youthfulness: in his hands, this is a young man’s music, the influence of Iosif Kotek and the fact that Tchaikovsky was only thirty-eight years old at the time of the Concerto’s genesis continually apparent.
In the G-minor Andante Canzonetta, Tchaikovsky partners the violin and orchestra as though he were writing chamber music for only two instruments. Roth responds with playing of conversational immediacy, each note’s significance in the musical conversation carefully but not obsessively considered. One of the most compelling components of Roth’s artistry is that he listens to rather than merely playing the music—all of the music, not solely his part in it—and reacts to intricacies that many soloists seemingly do not hear. The passing of thematic material from soloist to orchestra is a vital element of the construction of many concerti, but Roth bothers to question why motifs are treated in specific ways: it is not enough to suppose that Tchaikovsky did so because Brahms did so, who did so because Schumann did so, who did so because Beethoven did so, who did so because Mozart and Haydn did so. As the Canzonetta is played in this performance, Tchaikovsky’s voice resounds with tremendous personality, the lush Romanticism of the harmony cushioning wistful, emotionally vulnerable melody that seems as natural to Roth as to Tchaikovsky.
The Concerto’s Allegro vivacissimo finale is the sort of ambivalent music that Tchaikovsky composed with extraordinary profundity and tunefulness. Like that of Mozart, whose work the Russian composer idolized, Tchaikovsky’s music often evokes contrasting emotions simultaneously: effervescent, even banal melodies can convey surprising depths of discord. The breadth of the finale’s spiritual adventure, its heart stated by the composer to be the pursuit of pure beauty, is enhanced by the expansiveness of Roth’s phrasing, his affinity for finding song within any piece disclosing the close kinship of Tchaikovsky’s Concerto with music by Grieg and Sibelius. As in his performance of the Shostakovich Concerto, the sureness of his negotiations of difficult intervals and passagework and the security of his intonation are unimpeachable, but these are only facets of Roth’s playing. In opera, those who possess great voices are not necessarily great singers. A violinist with a great technique can only be a great artist if that technique is allied with sagacity that begins rather than ends with notes on a page. Roth’s interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Concerto is built upon a lovingly-honed acquaintance with the score that he shares with the listener with the enthusiasm of introducing one cherished friend to another—in short, the work of a major artist.
In the performances on this disc, Roth enjoys superlative support from the London Symphony Orchestra and conductor Thomas Sanderling. Some of today’s most talented soloists seem to exist in artistic vacuums, never interacting or communicating with their orchestral colleagues, and their recordings, while technically proficient to a considerable degree, flounder in a sort of emotional wasteland littered with meaningless notes. Artists need not be kindred spirits in order to collaborate effectively, but camaraderie and cordiality are as vital in music as chemistry between Romeo and Juliet is in theatre. Roth’s efforts on this disc are enhanced by tempi that are right both for the music and for his performance of it. Balances between orchestra and soloist sometimes sound slightly artificial, reminding the listener that this recording is a product of the studio rather than the concert hall. Likewise, the orchestral playing is occasionally pedestrian, especially in the Tchaikovsky Concerto. Always professional and commendably precise, the orchestra’s work contrasts with rather than sharing the propulsive energy of Roth’s playing. These Concerti are soloist-driven, however, and both Sanderling and the LSO are attentive, engaged passengers in Roth’s success-bound musical caravan.
In the poem quoted at the start, Dejan Stojanović also wrote that ‘Art is apotheosis; / Often, the complaint of beauty.’ In the music of Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky, the poet’s words echo a particularly poignant truth. Their works were perhaps the complaints of beautiful souls subjected to the ugliness of societies in which they were seers amidst almost universal blindness. Humanity still crawls along, seeking distant trinkets in darkness when there are so many well-lit treasures within reach. Though only towering peaks in a career already as magnificently craggy as the Himalayas, Linus Roth’s performances of these Violin Concerti by Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky are an apotheosis in an important artist’s mastery of his instrument.