Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto; Souvenir d'un lieu cher (orch. Lascae)

Janine Jansen; Mahler Chamber Orchestra/Daniel Harding (Decca 478 0651)

7 November 2008 4 stars

Jansen TchaikovskyIt might seem unusual for a recording of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto, one of the great war-horses of the romantic repertoire, to be accompanied by a chamber orchestra. However, on this new release from Decca, the lyricism and easy virtuosity of Janine Jansen's approach works well with the smaller scale accompaniment provided by the Mahler Chamber Orchestra under Daniel Harding to produce a reading that is refreshingly intimate.

This effect is emphasised by the coupling, Tchaikovsky's Souvenir d'un lieu cher: three pieces originally for violin and piano – including a 'Méditation' planned as the concerto's slow movement – in an expert arrangement for violin and string orchestra by Alexandru Lascae.

For most, though, the concerto will be the main attraction. Jansen has been wowing audiences with her performances of this work for a couple of seasons and no-one's likely to be disappointed with the quality of playing on this release. Few violinists make this music sound so effortless and her control is such that she can bring a feeling of lyricism even to the most taxing technical passages and is able to sing the melodic line where others struggle just to get the notes.

There's a balletic, almost classical feel from the start, with the first tentative orchestral phrases clipped shorter than usual by Harding. Jansen's opening entry is beautifully turned and meltingly lyrical; throughout the whole disc, this elegance never abandons her. As a result, this is not a performance of heart-on-sleeve yearning but something that's often more gentle, emphasising the composer's craftsmanship. However, some might miss the feeling of exultant release that can be achieved at the first tutti appearance of the first movement's polonaise theme, here carefully controlled by Harding, and the passage of uncertainty that immediately follows (from 6'54) sounds as though it could do with a stronger sense of direction.

However, Jansen makes light of the technical challenges at her next entry. It's her ability to bring out the melody behind such figures, peppered with treacherous double-stops, without a hint of effort that goes some way to define the character of the performance. Although she can send the sparks flying in the passagework, her facility brings with it refinement and sophistication (listen to the delicacy she achieves from 8'10 for example). Again, Harding sounds rather relaxed in the tutti leading up to the cadenza, but the cadenza itself is despatched with unfailing technical brilliance, if a touch more self-regarding lyricism than is often the case. The same combination of classical poise and fierce virtuosity distinguishes the rest of the movement and although the orchestra's contribution can at times seem underpowered, there are enough fireworks from Jansen to make up for it.

The 'Canzonetta' is as ravishing as one would expect, with the wind players of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra making particularly distinguished contributions in their solos and in the accompaniment to the heart-felt elegance of Jansen's line. The finale takes off with the violin's opening flourish tossed off with joyous exuberance before the movement gets underway, at a blistering pace. Here the orchestra and Harding's fleet-footed approach come into their own, responding admirably as Jansen skips above but also relishing the score's rustic effects – listen in particular to droning against the second subject and the accentuated pizzicato chords after the soloist picks up the tempo the second time round (around 6'00). Whether it's in the long drawn out melodies or the virtuoso passagework, Jansen is again outstanding, by turns playful and passionate, and she leads a thrilling race to the finish-line, with Harding more happy to drive his players forward.
The Souvenir d'un lieu cher makes a sensible coupling yet listening to the 'Méditation' it's easy to hear why it was withdrawn from the concerto. Although it shows Tchaikovsky's melodic gift to advantage, its main idea is inferior to that of the 'Canzonetta' and spread a little thinly. However, it's an attractive piece, played beautifully by Jansen. The Scherzo and Mélodie that complete the work are comparatively insubstantial but, in these performances, still highly enjoyable.

A fresh and exciting account of an old war-horse then and a distinguished addition to Jansen's discography. As seems now to be Universal's habit, a traditional liner note is replaced by an interview. In it Jansen expounds her view that 'sensitivity and intimacy epitomise both compositions'. Add an effortless technique to those two attributes and one has an idea of her approach.

By Hugo Shirley