September 30, 2010


Suzuki Evergreens, Volumes 1-7. Takako Nishizaki, violin; Terence Dennis, piano. Naxos. $8.99 each.

Suzuki Violin School, Volumes 1-8, revised. William Preucil and Koji Toyoda, violin; Cary Lewis and Linda Perry, piano. Alfred. $15.95 each.

     One of the many misconceptions about Shinichi Suzuki is that he was primarily interested in developing a new way of training young musicians. Another is that his sole focus was the violin. Yet another is that following the Suzuki Method is a sure path to virtuosity. And still another is that the “Suzuki school of performance” exists at all.

     In fact, Suzuki (1898-1998 – he died nine months before what would have been his 100th birthday) saw music as a means to something far more important: the development of what he called “a beautiful heart” through the “sensitivity, discipline and endurance” associated with hearing music from birth and learning to play it. Suzuki wanted to make wonderful people; if they were wonderful musicians, that was a bonus.

     Thus, the Suzuki approach – which includes, among other things, learning mostly by ear, starting to play at a very young age, playing in groups as well as on one’s own, and having a parent present supervise every practice session and attend every lesson – can theoretically apply to any instrument. And indeed it has been adapted for viola, cello, bass, guitar, flute, recorder, piano, organ and harp – and even voice – in addition to being used for the violin, which was Suzuki’s own instrument. But Suzuki was trying to develop good people, not great virtuosi, and in fact discouraged competition among players. Instead, he insisted on collaboration and mutual encouragement for players of every ability, at every label – no doubt in part because his approach was created in part as a way to help raise and bring beauty to the Japanese generation that would be forever scarred by World War II.

     But there is no “Suzuki school of performance” along the lines of, say, the French or Russian school. Students of those approaches can be easily identified through the specific techniques they use in performance. Not so with the Suzuki approach. The one element of Suzuki’s ideas that tends to be cited as identifiable among Suzuki students is the emphasis on what Suzuki called “tonalization,” meaning the student's ability to produce and recognize a beautiful, ringing tonal quality. But in fact, although Suzuki invented the word (which parallels “vocalization” to emphasize the way his musical approach parallels that through which children learn language), the production of beautiful tone – on any instrument – has been integral to Western musical education for hundreds of years.

     Yet even if the Suzuki method is not specifically designed to produce virtuosi, it can do so, and has. The very first person to complete the Suzuki course was Takako Nishizaki – in 1953, when she was nine years old. Nishizaki went on to study with a variety of major teachers and performers and to have an outstanding international career of her own. And now she has returned to her musical roots with a seven-volume Suzuki Evergreens CD series that presents a great deal of the Suzuki-method music – and, fascinatingly, many of the original works on which the Suzuki arrangements were based. Thus, anyone participating in or interested in the Suzuki method can hear not only the common repertoire that Suzuki students learn (which guarantees that they have something in common with fellow students worldwide – and can play at any time with anyone who has progressed to the same level), but also the more-elaborate works from which Suzuki drew the music for his pupils. Thanks to the depth of the Naxos catalogue (Nishizaki is married to Naxos founder and chairman Klaus Heymann), Volume 2 of this series can draw from other recordings to offer the harpsichord original of a Bach gavotte and the orchestral one of Dvořák’s Humoresque as well as Nishizaki playing the Suzuki version; Volume 3 can present sung versions of lullabies by Schubert and Brahms, in addition to Nishizaki’s performance of the Suzuki form of the music, and can feature Nishizaki as soloist in Bach violin concerti (with orchestra) as well as performing the Suzuki versions with piano; Volume 4 can offer similar complementary performances of a Vivaldi violin concerto and the original gavottes from Bach’s Cello Sonata No. 6; Volume 5 can include Corelli’s “La Folia” on Baroque violin and harpsichord as well as in Suzuki’s arrangement; and so on.

     This approach gives Suzuki Evergreens an interest level that the Suzuki music itself does not have for anyone not involved in Suzuki-based education. Suzuki Evergreens booklets also include some wonderful historical photos – not in themselves a reason to buy the CDs, but certainly an attractive element of the presentation. From the perspective of the current or potential Suzuki-method student, the Nishizaki recordings can provide excellent listening experiences that can be used for the “ear training” that is integral to the Suzuki approach for helping students learn a work’s notes, phrasing, dynamics and rhythm. There is no sense in these recordings that Nishizaki is “playing down” to a young audience – rather, she seems to be reliving elements of her training that were crucial to her later development and international success.

     Still, the Suzuki Evergreens are not 100% focused on the Suzuki method itself. That is where the eight-volume Suzuki Violin School recordings come in. These are strictly for current or would-be Suzuki students and their families. Each volume is a no-frills presentation of Suzuki-method violin music, followed in the first five CDs by tracks containing only the piano accompaniment – so students can practice along with the CDs. Thus, the second volume contains 12 tracks of Suzuki-based violin-and-piano performance, followed by 12 tracks containing only the piano accompaniment; the third volume contains seven tracks of violin and piano, then seven of piano alone; and so on. There is some variation from this pattern: Volume 4, for example, contains nine tracks each of violin-and-piano performances and piano-only ones – plus two violin-and-piano tracks giving only the first-violin and second-violin parts from Bach’s D minor two-violin concerto, BWV 1043. Volumes 6 through 8 include only violin-and-piano or violin-and-orchestra performances, all featuring Koji Toyoda with unnamed and unexplained accompaniment. By and large, the Suzuki Violin School recordings are uninteresting to hear: both Toyoda and William Preucil generally sound as if they are holding back their adult virtuosity in order to accommodate the supposed age and skill range of the young people who are presumably the audience for the recordings. The result is performances that mostly sound even more constricted – from a listener’s standpoint – than Suzuki playing usually does. The Suzuki method has proved itself very useful and durable for students and their families, but scarcely leads to highly listenable CDs.

     There is a bargain-basement feel to the Suzuki Violin School series, for all that its CDs cost significantly more than the Naxos Suzuki Evergreens recordings. A few examples among many: the first five Suzuki Violin School volumes provide, as ancillary material, only brief biographies of the artists, while Volumes 6-8 provide no information at all on either the music or the performers. The helpful elements of BWV 1043 in Volume 4 are inexplicably presented all over again in Volume 5. And none of the CDs even provides timings – not for individual tracks or for the disc as a whole. The result is a feeling of sloppiness, or amateurishness, about the whole series. (For the record, the eight volumes’ lengths are 45, 42, 46, 60, 68, 37, 34 and 35 minutes.)

     Nevertheless, Suzuki Violin School gets a (+++) rating, because it has a potentially valuable place for families immersed in Suzuki-method teaching: they may find the very simplicity of the presentation attractive, and in terms of “ear training,” it is good to let students have a chance to hear accomplished violin-and-piano performances and then be able to try out their own violin skills with the same piano accompaniment, as they can do with the first five Suzuki Violin School volumes.

     But for a real sense of what the Suzuki method can do and where it can lead – for all of Shinichi Suzuki’s protestations that his approach was not designed to produce virtuosi or create a “school” of playing – Suzuki Evergreens is of significantly greater value. Certainly few Suzuki students will go on to the accomplishments and international career of Takako Nishizaki. But there is not the slightest doubt that it was the Suzuki method that provided the foundation on which Nishizaki’s career was built. Suzuki Evergreens thus stands as a tribute to Nishizaki’s teacher, a return of sorts to the roots of her career. For listeners, the Suzuki Evergreens series provides a most unusual chance to hear the very grown-up and highly accomplished work of the first child to complete a form of instruction in both music and life that has now spread far beyond Japan, far beyond the violin, and – as Suzuki himself hoped – far beyond music lessons themselves.

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