Bell and MTT combine to give this warhorse a lithe, elfin gracefulness at times (in the fast outer movements) more reminiscent of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto than of the heavily Romantic readings often heard in the Tchaikovsky. Linda Kobler's booklet notes quote Bell as calling the piece "the most intimate, elegant, almost 'balletic' warhorse I know!" Well, that's also a partial list of Bell's strengths as a player -- just add in the most beautifully silken, refined tone of any player of his young generation on record, an exquisite sense of dynamics and the technique to project clearly even in the most hushed moments, and the good taste to avoid the sort of grotesqueries that some fiddlers are resorting to in order to distinguish themselves from the crowded field in well-known repertoire. Bell doesn't show off in this music by emphasizing its difficulties, instead making it sound easy --which, really, is much more impressive, especially in the finale.
Though the chest-beating, hair-tearing approach is abjured, this is still a quite Romantic reading in its own way, and there's still ample expression of the piece's inherent Slavic melancholy. In fact, by making the mood changes more mercurial, Bell and Thomas not only avoid the unrelenting pathos of some interpretations, they make the piece a more believable emotional experience. If there's any flaw in this performance, it might be that Bell lingers a bit too much in the first-movement cadenza, but the overall shaping of the work is keenly judged.
Kobler points out that Bell relishes the opportunity to program the Meditation, Op. 42 No. 1 (orchestrated by Glazunov) alongside the concerto because Tchaikovsky originally considered it for the slow-movement slot in the concerto (which is in D major, while the Meditation is in D minor). Well, Tchaikovsky's judgment on this point was sound, but it is nice to be able to hear for ourselves. Bell and Thomas aptly play the Meditation with hushed sweetness.
The Swan Lake movement is effectively an encore; it's a violin showpiece at the end, but Bell gives the pretty opening two-thirds their due as well with some of his most gorgeous playing.
The Berlin Philharmonic is acutely balanced and laser-sharp precise throughout this program, especially impressive when one hears from the applause at the end that the concerto was recorded in concert (the other works are studio productions, and of course most modern "live" performances fix problems with patch-ins, but there's no noticeable fixes here).
The disc is compatible with CD audio, SACD stereo, and SACD surround sound. I can't judge the latter two, but even as a regular CD this offers spectacular sound. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based former editor of Creem magazine and CDNow.com, editor of the acclaimed MusicHound Jazz: The Essential Album Guide, and contributor to The Big Takeover, Early Music America, and many other hip periodicals. He is a buyer at Sound Fix, a hot new record store in Williamsburg.