November 05, 2009


Joachim: Violin Concerto in One Movement, Op. 3; Violin Concerto in the Hungarian Style, Op. 11. Suyoen Kim, violin; Staatskapelle Weimar conducted by Michael Halász. Naxos. $8.99.

Sarasate: Music for Violin and Orchestra, Volume 1—Zigeunerweisen; Airs espagnols; Miramar—Zortzico; Peteneras—Capriccio espagnol; Nocturne-sérénade; Viva Sevilla!; Fantasie sur “La Dame Blanche.” Tianwa Yang, violin; Orquesta Sinfónica de Navarra conducted by Ernest Martínez Izquierdo. Naxos. $8.99.

     It makes sense for brilliant instrumentalists to compose music for themselves, and there is a longstanding tradition of their doing just that – dating back, in the case of violinists, to Vivaldi, who wrote at least some of his hundreds of concertos for himself to play (and, incidentally, may well have written the words to the poems that accompany his four most famous ones, The Four Seasons). Not everyone cared for Vivaldi’s playing – apparently some contemporaries found it a touch on the showy side and therefore unseemly, especially for a priest – but it certainly attracted attention. And attracting attention is one thing that violin superstars do exceptionally well. In the 19th century, the ultimate violin virtuoso was Niccolò Paganini – who, not surprisingly, created a series of concertos that would let him display his technical prowess, and also wrote (among other things) a set of 24 caprices that remain a pinnacle for every modern would-be virtuoso to scale.

     But Paganini may not have been the most influential performer among 19th-century violinists, for his main interest was in displaying his own talents. Joseph Joachim (1831-1907) was expert not only at showcasing his own abilities but also at bringing out the best in some of the Romantic era’s greatest composers. Joachim established Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, previously deemed nearly unplayable, as a mainstay in the concert hall. He was instrumental in reviving interest in Bach’s sonatas and partitas for solo violin. Schumann and Dvořák wrote their violin concertos for him, although he never played either of them. He advised Bruch, who also wrote works for him, and Joachim’s close friend Brahms composed his Violin Concerto for him – although Joachim played it only six times. The F-A-E Sonata by Brahms, Schumann and Albert Dietrich was written for Joachim as well. In addition, Joachim wrote a small number of works himself – about two dozen – including three violin concertos. The first two, played by Suyoen Kim on a new Naxos CD, are a study in contrasts. Violin Concerto in One Movement is strongly influenced by (and dedicated to) Liszt, who was an important influence on the young Joachim but from whom Joachim later broke, allying himself with the more-conservative musical approach epitomized by Brahms. This is a youthful and exuberant work, with two cadenzas in its single extended movement, and with plenty of opportunities for virtuoso display. Joachim’s second concerto, Violin Concerto in the Hungarian Style, was published after Joachim’s break with Liszt, but it handles its Hungarian inflections with Lisztian panache, especially in the finale. Joachim was himself Hungarian, and the multiple thematic elements reflecting Hungary in this concerto are impressively managed as well as atmospheric. These are good concertos for top-notch young violinists such as 22-year-old Kim to play, demanding excellent technique without requiring great emotional depth. These Joachim concertos, especially the second, have considerable flair, and Kim tosses them off very effectively, receiving fine backup from Staatskapelle Weimar under Michael Halász.

     Another 22-year-old virtuoso, Tianwa Yang, brings plenty of fire and spirit to the compositions of another great 19th-century violinist, Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908). Sarasate was more in the tradition of Paganini – a superb player whose technique was highly influential – than in that of Joachim, whose tremendous abilities were placed at the service of some of the great composers of his and earlier times. Sarasate’s use of vibrato and emphasis on his instrument’s tone are just two of his areas of influence on other violinists. His music, written in various folklike styles, has a fairly narrow emotional range (languorous to flighty) and tends to sounds a bit repetitious when heard in large quantities. But many of his works, when listened to individually, are gems – notably including Zigeunerweisen, perhaps his best-known display piece. The distinct Hungarianisms of this work (which uses the same concluding melody that Liszt chose for one of his Hungarian Rhapsodies) make an interesting contrast to the more typical Spanish and Basque music heard in most of the other works on this CD. Among the disc’s highlights are the lovely Nocturne-sérénade, which is graceful and more subtle than most of Sarasate’s music; and Fantasie sur “La Dame Blanche,” based on François-Adrien Boieldieu’s 1825 opera, which combines considerable lyricism with plenty of fireworks. Ernest Martínez Izquierdo and the Orquesta Sinfónica de Navarra (which was founded by Sarasate in 1879) give Yang excellent accompaniment throughout these works – and since Naxos has designated this CD as Volume 1 of a series, there should be considerably more of Sarasate’s music, and his approach to the violin, still to come.

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