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John J. Puccio
Classical Candor, June 2010

There is no want of Tchaikovsky Violin Concertos on the market, many of them very cheap and many of them very good. But there is always room for one more when it is as good as this one. That it comes at so low a cost is icing on the cake.

Violinist Ilya Kaler plays with excitement and conviction, fire and soul, which are sometimes missing in a work that requires a good deal of Russian passion. One of the first criticisms of the Concerto was its supposed trivial “Cossack” element, something that today has become its biggest selling point. Anyway, Kaler does not shy away from the big moments, yet he seems equally at home in the meditative stages, too. I thought during the first few minutes of the performance that Kaler lacked the requisite fervor for this work, but either he or I warmed up to the proceedings, and by the time it was over, I was a believer.

In addition, the disc offers up the Serenade mélancolique, the Souvenir d’un lie cher, and the Valse-Scherzo, all worthy, if lesser-known Tchaikovsky pieces. Personally, I would have opted for a second violin concerto, maybe the Lalo concerto that inspired Tchaikovsky, but that’s neither here nor there.

The Naxos sound helps a lot, too. In terms of clarity and dynamics, it’s terrific. It’s one of Naxos’s best efforts in years. Very, very clean; no bass overhang or fuzzy, muddy midrange whatsoever. However, one has to put up with a certain one-dimensional quality, with not much depth to the orchestral field, and the soloist prominently out front. By comparison, Heifetz on RCA sounds softer but more realistically represented. What’s more, you can find the Heifetz disc at mid price, only a couple of dollars more than the Naxos, with an interpretation even more virtuosic than Kaler’s. Nevertheless, for an inexpensive, absolutely clean digital recording of the work at a low price, Kaler is hard to beat.

Penguin Guide, January 2009

Kaler, who has recorded a number of discs for Naxos already including the two Shostakovich Concertos, was first-prize winner in the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1986, as well as in the Sibelius competition in Helsinki the following year. His approaching fresh, clean and direct, by no means unfeeling, with flawless intonation and fine shading of dynamic. He is not helped by his rather close balance in an otherwise excellent recording.

Robert Maxham
Fanfare, January 2008

Kaler may be a prize-winner, but he brings more than prize-winner’s faultless perfection to Tchaikovsky’s Concerto, in an exciting version, accompanied with gusto, that should appeal almost as strongly to those who collect performances of the Concerto as to those about to make its acquaintance. Strongly recommended. © 2008 Fanfare Read complete review

Tim Perry
MusicWeb International, September 2007

Talk about rotten luck. Naxos has had these performances in the can for a couple of years, and have just released them, hot on the heels of Julia Fischer’s recent Tchaikovsky disc on Pentatone, containing exactly the same programme. The only difference is that Kaler plays Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir d’un lieu cher in Glazunov’s orchestration, while Fischer plays the original version for violin and piano.

I downloaded the Fischer recording from emusic almost immediately after its release, and should say that I agree with Ian Lace that hers is one of the best recordings of the Tchaikovsky concerto to have emerged in recent years. The only recent recording of this work that had engaged me more is Vadim Repin’s whirlwind account with Gergiev on Philips, coupled with an equally impressive performance of the Myaskovsky Violin Concerto.

I fear that in all the excitement over Fischer’s album, Kaler’s will be ignored, and that would be incredibly unfair because this disc is excellent in every way. In fact, Kaler’s account points up the only deficiency in Fischer’s account: a lack of variety to her tone. Kaler’s performance is full of contrasts, as he colours the violin line with subtle shading, yet maintains a lyrical virility throughout. It is clear that he has lived with this concerto under his fingertips for many years and that he still finds much to enjoy and inspire in the familiar turns of phrase. There is an artless facility to his playing of the big tunes as in the opening statement of the first movement or in the gorgeous Canzonetta, and a sweetness of tone that is quite disarming. As the violin writing gets busier, Kaler and the orchestra tend to pick up the pace quite significantly, yet the rapid passages are dispatched with effortless brilliance. Kaler’s first movement cadenza has plenty of character, freedom and precision. Cadenzas apart, Yablonsky and his orchestra lend sympathetic support. This performance is not so much a full-blooded flood of romanticism as a blossoming account of elegance as well as brilliance. It also wears it war-horse status lightly, impressing itself upon the listener by virtue of its freshness and natural feeling. It is a tremendously satisfying account and one that bears rehearing.

Similar comments apply to the remaining pieces on this album. The quality of the music, both in terms of its inspiration and emotional content, makes this programme apt and it is hard to understand why it is not more common. The Sérénade mélancolique is quite a rarity, but it deserves to be far more popular. It was in fact Tchaikovsky’s first piece for solo violin, written to a commission from the great Leopold Auer. The violin’s part is so full of longing and achingly beautiful that it is almost a vocalise. There are striking effects of orchestration too, with some magical woodwind interplay underpinning the sighing of the violin.

The Souvenir is, if anything, even more engaging. The first of its three movements was initially intended as the second movement of the violin concerto, with the sparkling scherzo and intimate melodie added later. The dark romanticism of Glazunov’s orchestration is entirely idiomatic and Kaler’s playing is sweet toned and brightly coloured. The little Valse-Scherzo that closes the disc makes an excellent encore and Kaler plays it with gusto.

Microphone placement favours Kaler throughout, but this is generally not overly problematic except for the first movement of the Souvenir where Kaler’s breathing is a little distracting. Keith Anderson’s liner-notes are up to his usual high standard.

If you are in the market for a new recording of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto this year, have a listen to this one before just buying Fischer’s. You may find, as I did, that you want both.

Edward Greenfield
Gramophone, April 2007

By happy coincidence, these two new versions of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto appear with the same couplings. But where the Naxos version offers Souvenir d’un lieu cher in Glazunov’s orchestration, the Pentatone has it with the original piano accompaniment, played by the conductor, Yakov Kreizberg.

Interpretatively, the two versions offer a distinct choice. Kaler, who has recorded a number of discs for Naxos, won first prize in the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1986, as well as in the Sibelius competition in Helsinki the previous year. He now works mainly in the USA. His approach is fresh, clean and direct, by no means unfeeling, with flawless intonation and fine shading of dynamic. He is not helped by a rather close balance in an otherwise excellent recording.

If anyone feels that Kaler’s reading is short on individuality, then they have only to go to Julia Fischer’s magnetic version. As her previous discs have demonstrated, she is characterful in every phrase, with a sparkle and sense of fantasy in virtuoso passages and an inner intensity in the intimate lyrical sections. Her free expressiveness over tempo may seem excessive in places but there is not a hint of sentimentality or self-indulgence; she is greatly helped by the conducting of Kreizberg with the Russian National Orchestra, which is both taut and sympathetic, with an ideal balance which allows the soloist the widest range of dynamic. The earlier Naxos version, coupled with the Mendelssohn, offers a reading between those of Fischer and Kaler, though Takako Nishizaki adopts such traditional interpretative variations as using a mute in the slow movement.

When it comes to fill-ups, it is specially relevant to have the “Meditation”, first of the pieces of Souvenir d’un lieu cher: this was the composer’s first idea of a slow movement for the concerto, later replaced by the Canzonetta. Here Kaler plays all three pieces with a folk like freshness, where Fischer again goes deeper, as she does also in the Serenade mélancolique.

In the other fill-up, the brilliant Vase-scherzo, Kaler finds some of the sparkle that is rather missing in the rest, but again Fischer plays with an even more marked sense of fun and fantasy, with more light and shade. Anyone who invests in the Naxos disc is not going to be disappointed, but Fischer again demonstrates what a great and distinctive artist she is.

Mark Estren, March 2007

It is so easy to overdo the performance of deeply Romantic music. Some works just seem to invite great, sprawling, over-emotional interpretations. But interestingly, performers who subdue the impulse to over-romanticize the Romantic tend to produce more interesting readings than ones who give in to it.

Certainly there are few works as emblematic of the Romantic period as Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, which has been subject to all sorts of excesses in performance. That makes Ilya Kaler’s approach all the more fascinating: he is precise and not overly emotional. There is no wallowing in Kaler’s reading, or in the excellent support of Dmitry Yablonsky and the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra, who offer exemplary attention to detail throughout. Kaler has a thin but robust tone and the ability to accentuate every single note even in highly complex passages—at times he sounds like no less a virtuoso than Jascha Heifetz. But Heifetz rarely had orchestras and conductors this good—he had no interest in being overshadowed by “mere” accompanists. Kaler and Yablonsky are a partnership of equals, and the music is better for it. Kaler’s playing is perhaps a trifle cool, but it brings great rewards, as in the first movement’s cadenza, which turns out to sound remarkably fresh when you hear all the notes. The second movement comes across as a pleasant interlude and is not at all weepy. There is nothing prissy in the finale, which sounds almost effortless as Kaler plays it—with precision even in the fastest runs. Yablonsky makes sure the flute, oboe and clarinet solos complement the solo violin neatly. The result is an unusual, and unusually successful, performance.

The other works here are less often played but no less Romantic in temperament. Kaler makes Sérénade mélancolique sound quiet and contemplative rather than melancholy, with precision playing that is just a touch showy. Souvenir d’un lieu cher—the “dear place” was the estate of Tchaikovsky’s patron, Madame von Meck, where he stayed while she was away—has a lovely sound in Glazunov’s orchestration (it was written for violin and piano). Some of the more attractive touches are not particularly Tchaikovskian, such as the harp in the first movement, but they sound beautiful nonetheless. Kaler is warm here, swirling in and out of the orchestra rather than dominating it. But he does dominate the second movement, a very fast Scherzo, and then makes the Trio unusually sweet. The final movement, simply called “Mélodie,” sounds wistful and a touch doleful. As for Valse-Scherzo, it is a showpiece, and Kaler plays it with humor and true Viennese rubato—taking a bit away from one measure and restoring it to another, not merely slowing down and speeding up indiscriminately. There’s no question that this is Romantic music, but the fact that Kaler does not wear his heart on his sleeve keeps the focus on the works rather than the performer—a pleasant change from the norm.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, February 2007

In the 1980’s Ilya Kaler had the quite unique achievement of winning the Tchaikovsky, Sibelius and Paganini competitions, the three great luminaries in the violin world. It was to herald a career that has taken him around the world many times performing with most of the world’s most prestigious orchestras. If from that description you are expecting an extrovert firebrand performance of the concerto you are going to be disappointed, for Kaler is a musician of impeccable good taste who places his technique at the service of the composer, his task simply to bring the printed page to life. Tempos for the outer movements are quick but never breathless, the agility of his left hand matched by a bowing technique that ensures crisp articulation, the spiccato passages in the finale being a particular joy. He offers a very pure tone not indulged by exaggerated resonance on the lower strings, and avoids any wayward rhythmic distortion. Even the passage on harmonics in the finale is taken without the heavy slowing that we usually encounter. I enjoy the lightweight and free flowing central Andante that never gets bogged down with sentimentality, his instrument singing with silvery sweetness. I would forgive him an exciting dash to the finishing line that we have come to expect. All of these many virtues continue through the disc, and if you want to sample this great virtuoso go to track 8, the Valse-Scherzo, the violin dancing around its big bold waltz tune. There have not been other recordings that bring together all four of Tchaikovsky’s violin and orchestra works, and even in the presence of legendary recordings of the concerto—with David Oistrakh surely the greatest interpretation—I would strongly commend this disc to you. The sound quality is among the very best, Yablonsky bringing a most responsive accompaniment from the orchestra.

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