Cuban-American violinist Andrés Cardénes was the silver medal winner in the 1982 Tchaikovsky Competition. I heard him in recital shortly after that and was impressed with his lyricism, technical aplomb and musicianship. I haven't heard much about him since that time and have sometimes wondered why. Apparently he has spent the last several years as the concertmaster of the Pittsburgh Symphony, as well as being a teacher at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University. He has not made many recordings, at least that I'm aware of. And yet here he weighs in with two of the most-recorded concerti in the violin repertoire. And he is partnered by an orchestra not well-known in the US, the Sinfonia Varsovia, conducted by his sometime duo partner, Ian Hobson. So how does he do?
Well, he does quite well, thank you. The Brahms is given a lovely reading with heft and drama and yet lyricism and sweetness aplenty. One could wonder whether this performance comes up to the level of such acclaimed recent recordings as those by Maxim Vengerov or Joshua Bell, or such classics as that by Heifetz/Reiner. This reading does not need to hang its head, yet it lacks the texture and last bit of panache of those performances. Most people are not aware that the orchestral writing in this concerto is among the most difficult to bring off of any Brahms penned in his purely orchestral works, and the Sinfonia Varsovia does a fairly good job. Still, the Chicago and Cleveland orchestras in the recordings mentioned above are exceptionally good. In this performance we are a little let down by the oboe when it sings its ravishing melody at the beginning of the slow movement. However, when Cardénes takes up that melody we are in heaven; he plays it with hushed beauty. The finale lacks the last measure of muscular gypsy brio.
At first I was not impressed with the Mendelssohn, but on re-listening I was struck by Cardénes's choice (along with Hobson) to emphasize the elfin fragility of the music. Often this concerto's outer movements are played primarily as the virtuosic music it is, but just as often it is played with, I believe, too much muscle. In this performance all is lightness and suggestion. Cardénes plays Mendelssohn's first movement cadenza evocatively. The transition between I and II is handled with mysterious anticipation by the Varsovia; in its time this passage was very nearly unprecedented and it is still extraordinarily effective. What follows is one of Mendelssohn's greatest songs without words aided here by Cardénes's beauty of tone. The finale is wonderful, with soloist and orchestra in perfect sync, both musically and emotionally. For me it is the most impressive band on the CD.
Bottom line: these recordings will not replace any of the standard-bearers for these two concerti, but they are deftly and effectively done.