Like many, I would number the Brahms and the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerti among my favorites in the standard repertoire. For the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D Major (Op. 35), I find it to be both fulfilling and beautiful. From the moments in the overture building to the solo, one can sense that greatness can be achieved in just a few bars. The dynamics fall, only briefly, to emerge the solo violin in a sweet and subtle melody that conjures an image of a spirit rising. It adds a few playful touches and never exhibits even a moment of harshness in its rich chords. The first movement ends brilliantly, building throughout to reach the final epic triumph. The second movement is brief but tender. It develops almost cautiously, and it ends almost without resolution, serving as a true bridge to the thrill-a-minute finale.
It has been said that the Tchaikovsky was greeted with a chilling reception by critics upon its premiere, and violinist Leopold Auer famously called it “unplayable.” If this last endorsement was not sufficient in gaining a sense of the magnitude of immense difficulty in the piece, finally hearing the piece live performed by a young artist certainly gave me a completely new appreciation for the piece.
Tess Varley is that artist, a senior violin performance student at the College of Fine Arts (CFA) at Boston University, who gave her capstone senior recital with a performance of the Tchaikovsky with a piano reduction of the orchestra. Varley also played Beethoven’s Sonata No. 7 in C Minor (Op. 30 No. 2), accompanied on both by pianist Maja Tremiszewska.
The recital took place in the CFA’s Concert Hall, which acoustically resembles perhaps that of a high school’s dilapidated auditorium. Acoustic paneling at the rear of the stage appeared to be a last-ditch effort at squeezing some semblance of reasonable sound out of the place, and while Varley’s violin filled the space admirably well, one had no sense that her dynamic range and tone could have been appreciated fully. Transients and decays of notes died instead of lingered and not purposefully. It was the first performance I had heard in the place, and admittedly I am spoiled by my primary venues of Symphony Hall and Jordan Hall, but this was surprisingly poor for the primary recital space of the CFA. From my recollection and without direct comparison, the Tsai Performance Center at BU is markedly better but admittedly too large of a venue for a small recital such as last night’s.
It was the first time I had heard the Beethoven that I can recall, and it was a very nice piece. Particularly intriguing to me was the Scherzo: Allegro third movement that really displayed Varley’s talent and confidence on the spiccato passages, where she seemed relaxed. This would also be evident in several places in the fast movements of the Tchaikovsky as well and I think demonstrates that bow control is among her greatest strengths.
It was the first time I had heard the Tchaikovsky with a piano reduction of the orchestral parts, and it was a unique experience. Only the privileged few have access to the resources and time of a full orchestra as partners for the piece, and it was naturally less rich as a result. But this is a piece I know well (of course not even in the same class as Tess), and I swear I could hear the faint orchestral overlay onto the piano part as they played. Especially powerful were percussive parts and the march-like horns that are simply irreplaceable.
Varley’s poise and maturity were plainly evident, as the piece pushes any soloist to the limits of the instrument in several places, only to return to more solid ground in brief moments. In some spots, especially with large runs shifting wildly up and down the fingerboard and crossing over the range of strings, she may have been on the brink of losing control like a race car driver taking a turn perhaps too quickly, but inevitably she prevailed and maintained her line. Her confidence did seem to vary slightly from passage to passage, especially notable in the early first movement, where it seemed less secure than during her cadenza, which allowed her the freedom of expression, as she may have been able to rely on her clearly expert preparation and her careful attention to her practiced and polished technique. She simply nailed the cadenza in the first movement with polish and grace. One could sense that this young woman controlled her nerves well, and she required no audible settling time. Even before appearing back on stage before the Tchaikovsky, when the lights were dimmed and her friends and family (and I) eagerly awaited her return to the stage, we could hear guffaws of laughter coming from backstage, which surely were signs of her ability to relax in an understandably high stakes moment.
I was thrilled to hear the piece performed live by this wonderfully talented violinist, and I would like to thank Tess for the opportunity. Her interpretation of the piece was also quite notable, I felt, and it reminded me of the interpretations I enjoy most in the recorded repertoire (the likes of Joshua Bell or Janine Jansen rather than Jascha Heifetz). She gave me a better sense of the technical demands of the piece, as I mentioned, and her execution was, overall, superb. I hope that she enjoys a long and fruitful orchestral career if she so chooses, and I strongly suspect that she would be an asset to any orchestra in which she plays.