Reviewed by Mandy Stefanakis, June 1st, 2014
Dvořák was influenced by both people and places in his composing and in this, his famous Violin Concerto in A Minor, both musical heavyweights and his own Czech heritage help shape his composition. The Concerto took several years to reach fruition, not because of Dvořák’s tardiness, but rather because he awaited the suggestions and approval of the famous violinist, Joseph Joachim, for whom he had written the work. Although Joachim’s input was incorporated into the Concerto at several junctures, he never actually performed it. Perhaps this was because, like any composer worthy of his stripes, Dvořák finally put his foot down and said, “No more!” It is a masterful piece of music, and Dvořák managed to retain aspects criticised by others, such as the beautiful segue into the second movement. Spin the world around for a century and a bit and we are the fortunate recipients of Richard Tognetti’s interpretation of it.
I feel so blessed to be alive now, to be able to hear him play, both in extraordinary acoustic environments and on high fidelity recordings, because he is such a unique and masterful player. This performance is as good as any I have heard from him – indeed, anyone! There are plenty of fine violinists out there. What sets Tognetti apart is – well, it isn’t just one thing. Firstly, it is the tonal quality he achieves, which is so exquisite there are no words that do justice to the sound. It is not just velvety and sweet, but there is a brilliance to it, partially the sublime resonance of harmonics, partially his execution of vibrato. Secondly, his technique is so secure, that there is never a sense of a piece of music becoming a technical exercise requiring fortitude and determination; it is always musical. Particularly in the challenging third movement where many performances start to sound like “race almost run”, his sense of the musical integrity of every phrase is captured superbly. Indeed, there are aspects of his interpretation of that movement which make one reconsider the musical intent in a completely different way. Thirdly, Tognetti treats every note with such care – as though he has somehow contemplated that he is placing this sound out there and it must be the best damned sound it can be because, existentially, it can never occur again. Additionally he attends to the intimate relationship between that note and its preceding and following notes with the same detailed “parenting”. Finally, he gets into the very being, the very essence of the music and its context and while retaining the integrity of its construct, he contemplates how he might hit the ‘refresh’ button. He enriches the music through his deep understanding of its expressive intent. Through his attention to the minute detail of the placement of each sound, the intensity with which it is played and its tonal quality we are allowed to travel on this wondrous new journey with an established piece of repertoire. The resulting sound is a luxury for the listener!
Tognetti’s uniqueness stands out on this recording even more than usual because he is not playing with the ACO which, as a tightly-knit unit, follows his interpretative philosophy. The Nordic Chamber Orchestra is a fine outfit, but it plays a straight bat and this allows Tognetti to shine. He embraces the heaviness of the Beethovenesque first movement and moves gracefully into the sublime second and more romantic movement, where that other grumpy old bloke, Brahms, can be felt over Dvořák’s shoulder. Brahms’ presence can also be sensed in the final movement, but here Dvořák also draws on the Czech melodies and rhythms which are such a pivotal part of his oeuvre.
What is ultimately most intoxicating about Tognetti’s musicianship is that he brings to life the composer, the history and the context of the music he performs and through his reinterpretation, becomes a pivotal part of that context.
The Legends follows this riveting performance. To be fair, it could never compete. Although well executed under the baton of Christian Lindberg, each in the series of ten pieces attempts to achieve the feel of the grand novel in what are instead, novellas. There is never any time to sit comfortably in a musical place before being dragged somewhere else, like a small child being taken around a shopping mall. But the Concerto makes this recording well worth the investment.