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The Golden Age? Emil Chudnovsky vs. Chocolate

Reviewing a book or CD of an acquaintance’s is a losing proposition. Gush and be accused of shameless favoritism and unforgivable bias; be critical and count on not being invited over for dinner any time soon. The truth-content of the review hardly matters in that regard. Should one be a little more critical than usual, protecting the reputation as a hard-nosed, honest-eared critic or can we slip a little service to friendship? The best way to appease both instincts is the strategy representing the exact inverse of ‘damnation with faint praise’, namely “Praise by faint damnation”. So here I go:

The concept of the album strokes my predilections like a cat against the lie of the fur. “The Golden Age” – a collection of virtuoso confections that is to the ear what the Jubilee Praline Edition by Godiva is to the tummy. How is that bad, you might wonder. In that case I would like to know if you have ever eaten a pound and a half of chocolate, and if so: how did you feel afterwards. Exactly.

To be fair, the comparison limps a little; a collection of Saint-Saëns, Massenet, Wieniawski, Paganini, Sarasate and, yes, Kreisler, isn’t quite as dense as a giant ball of chocolate in your innards - and at least it doesn’t leave you nearly as constipated. Mercifully, Mr. Chudnovsky’s tone, style of playing, the sound of his instrument and the sound of the recording itself all work towards higher digestibility. That is to say that there is nothing cloyingly sweet about this CD – this isn’t the Romantic Romance of the Romantic Violin á la candy-man Josh Bell. It’s more a lavishly packaged and good-hearted ego trip about technical abilities, which bans the perpetrator, in my book, to a totally different (and kinder) circle in musician-hell. Of course such a record would be a lamentable joke if the skill wasn’t in ample supply… fortunately it is. There are a few scratchy moments in the highest stratospheres of Paganini’s Le Streghe and the beginning of the Italian fiddler’s 24th Caprice sounds ever so slightly stop-and-go (that quickly dissipates when the pizzicato element enters). The Introduction & Rondo Capriccioso and the Thaïs Meditation are very fine, indeed.

Emil Chudnovsky’s playing has a hard edge, accentuating brilliance, the sound he and his instrument produce is shallow bodied (but big!). There is a virtuosic, short-packed energy to his way with the violin – playing always in the smallest possible gear in the bravado sections but not afraid to shift long when it comes to more lyrical parts… which are impressive still, even if his strengths do not lie there. I could probably come up with a few superlative adjectives for a good many aspects of his playing (nobody would believe it, anyway), instead I’ll mention the one that does not quite come to mind right away: subtlety. On this recording, he displays the subtlety of a race car. Then again that might be appropriate with these works; just like I am not sure if subtlety has ever won a race car the Monza Grand Prix.

Daniel Grimwood is the pianist kind enough to indulge his colleague with his accompaniment. Not surprisingly, Grimwood gets the best chance to display his considerable skill in the only modern work on this disc – although “modern” merely refers to the time of its composition (1999), hardly its lush, neo-romantic style. Philip Lasser’s La Vocalise is the work in question and, fitting in with the theme of the CD and the other works, it is not a spitting and screaming piece of modernist agenda (not that there is anything wrong with that)… it is a simply beautiful, lyrical (and, yes, conservative) work that does the inconceivable: hail from the 1990’s and contain melody. Debussy shimmers through, Langgaard (if you know him), too. It is by far the most lyrical work on the disc – a bit of respite before Kreisler, that old crook, closes the disc with the wistful Viennese Rhapsodic Fantasietta.

Sound is slightly recessed, with the violin set back and the natural resonance of an expansive, if cold, concert space… perhaps a large, marble floored room in an empty house. The recording sacrifices intimacy for detail. Even if there were more warmth in the playing, it would leave the balance still in favor of underscoring the technical achievements. It is not what critics these days like to call a ‘natural sound reproduction’; instead of sounding like a violin, it sounds like a violin being played to you. That’s a matter of preference, mostly – and a matter of how you have set up your stereo system. The distance between listener and the violin leaves the tone room to breathe and dissipate, creates ambience.

"The Golden Age"
Emil Israel Chudnovsky, Daniel Grimwood
JB Record[s]
- available in China, at select Tower Records stores, and directly by contacting the artist.

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