I was in the mood for something different when I found this CD collecting dust on my shelf, previously unopened. It dates from 1981 and is long out-of-print, but it happily it led me to discover a more recent (2000) recording on Ondine, which prompted this write-up of both discs.
Pro-Arte produced some fine recordings in the 80s, many of which were later reissued on various satellite labels (Intersound, Maxiplay, etc.) in "surround sound". They were among the first "audiophile" labels (along with Telarc) which attempted to make better-sounding CDs than the standard digital fare from the majors, which often did not sound all that good on the early CD playback of the time. (Remember those rack systems that you could find everywhere, like Penny's, Sears, and KMart?!) This label also attracted some pretty good names, such as Eduardo Mata, Gerard Schwarz, Eric Kunzel, and others.
However, this title seems to be sort of a one-off. A fairly obscure piece by a second-rate Russian composer, played by a no-name violinist with a second-tier orchestra - it's actually just the kind of recording I'm usually drawn to! But alas, these performers do not make a very convincing case for this wonderful piece, despite the review quotes they found somewhere to print on the back cover...Ha!
Taneyev's Suite de Concert for Violin and Orchestra, requires true musical insight, passionate inspiration and dedication to bring it off. Maybe that's why it's so rarely recorded. Unfortunately, it does not receive it here. Christian Altenburger is a good player, but not much more than that - not quite what we would classify as "world class". The main problem is that his intonation is insecure throughout - painfully so, at times. The Vienna Symphony (not to be confused with the magnificent Vienna Philharmonic) sounds like they're sight-reading the score, which I'm sure they are; I doubt they had played it before. I suspect rehearsal time was very limited, and it sounds like it. Conductor Yuri Ahronovitch brings his usual level of pedestrian reliability to the proceedings - detached and disinterested.
The recording is typical of the house-sound Pro-Arte was known for - overly warm and rich, engulfed in a very reverberant acoustic. So it is a pleasant listen, but in no way revealing of the glories inherent in this music.
Intrigued, I searched my shelves again and found another unopened recording of it. It is a 2000 Ondine release, played by violinist Pekka Kuusisto with Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting the Helsinki Philharmonic. And it is a revelation. Miraculously, this piece comes to life as never before, revealing it to be a true masterpiece for this composer. I credit Ashkenazy for elevating this performance to the lofty heights it achieves here - in stark contrast to the ho-hum results Ahronovitch manages for Altenburger. The Tchaikovskian fire and drama burst forth in Helsinki. And Kuusisto's playing has all the passion and assured effortlessness Altenburger lacks. Ondine's superior recording helps significantly as well, being much more open, lively, airy, sparkling and dramatic than the woolly Pro-Arte.
I hate to dis an out-of-print, innovative title from a defunct record label such as this one on Pro-Arte. But recordings of this work are relatively rare, so it does possess value. And it certainly provides a striking contrast with the one on Ondine, which in comparison, is simply magnificent. Ondine also offers 2 significant (if less satisfying) couplings, which the Pro-Arte does not.
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