Magazine | March 21, 2011, Issue

First Violins

We are not in a great age for pianists, although there are great ones — Yefim Bronfman, Zoltán Kocsis, a couple of others. We are not in a great age for conductors, either, although there are exceptions to this rule: James Levine, prominently. Composers? Let’s not “go there,” as people now say. In singers, however, we are lucky. They’re coming out of our ears. In violinists, we are lucky, too. I propose to discuss some of them, through their recent recordings.

Janine Jansen is a Dutchwoman in her early thirties. For the Decca label, she has made an album called Beau Soir, which suggests it will be a French album — and so it is. Heifetz made a famous transcription of the Debussy song “Beau soir.” Jansen “sings” it deliciously, along with her accompanist, Itamar Golan. (I am one of the remnant who do not regard “accompanist” as a slur. The politically correct term is “collaborative pianist,” or, even worse, “collaborative artist.” Gag me.)

Also on this disc are the Debussy Sonata, the Ravel Sonata, and sundry smaller items (such as “Beau soir”). In the “Blues” movement of the Ravel, Jansen and Golan are alluring. How Ravel loved American music! Do you know the legend about Gershwin and Ravel? Gershwin telegrams him asking for lessons. Ravel answers, “How much did you make last year?” Gershwin says half a million dollars (or whatever it was). Ravel telegrams back, “May I have lessons with you?”

Obviously, we can take issue with Jansen on certain interpretive matters. She opens Fauré’s “Après un rêve” with a big ritard, which strikes me as wrong. But the album as a whole is entirely right. It is astute, sensual, and very French. (There is no use speaking of Jansen’s technique, for it can be taken for granted.) The album is also alive — having more spontaneity, immediacy, and daring than you usually find in a studio recording. Or in a recital.

Lisa Batiashvili is a Georgian violinist who, like Jansen, is in her early thirties. She immigrated to Germany with her family when she was eleven, just as the Soviet Union was breaking up. In Georgia, the breakup was particularly chaotic and bloody. She has now made an album, for Deutsche Grammophon, called Echoes of Time. According to the liner notes, the works gathered here “cast light” on the Soviet experience. That is certainly a plausible claim.

A personal story, if I may. I had heard and reviewed Batiashvili a couple of times, and found her perfectly capable, though nothing to shout about. Then, in April 2007, she played Shostakovich’s Concerto No. 1 with the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Sakari Oramo. I was not prepared for this performance: stunning, bone-rattling, flooring. Critics are a cocky bunch, proud and serene in their opinions. But sometimes we may think, “Was it really as good as I thought? Was it really as bad as I thought?”

#page#Flash-forward a couple of years. Some publicity materials concerning Batiashvili came my way. And they included comments from a Minneapolis critic, who had heard Batiashvili in the Shostakovich, also in 2007. He wrote, “. . . a genuinely great performance, standing among the summits of my half-century of concertgoing.” One mustn’t need — i.e., require — reinforcement. Standing alone can be splendid, as well as necessary. Still, a little reinforcement is not so bad, now and then.

On the new album, Batiashvili plays the Shostakovich concerto with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen (a Finn, as it happens, like Oramo). Does the recording measure up to the live performance I heard? No. It is a little careful, a little studied. It is nevertheless commendable, and more than that: excellent. Elsewhere on the album, Batiashvili plays two pieces in the company of Hélène Grimaud, the French pianist. One of the pieces is Spiegel im Spiegel (Mirror in the Mirror) by Arvo Pärt, the Estonian master. (He is an oasis in the desert of today’s composition.) This is a simple, gentle, rocking, mysterious thing. Pärt can do more with a few notes than other composers can do with thousands.

Over the years, I have remarked on a certain spirituality, a nobility of soul, coming through Batiashvili’s playing. “You play who you are,” goes an old saying. If Batiashvili is an ax-murderer, so to speak, I don’t want to hear about it.

Ray Chen, 22, has just emerged. He is a Taiwanese-born violinist who grew up in Australia and studied at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. (The internationalism of music is a wonderful fact.) Chen’s debut album, on Sony Classical, is called Virtuoso. Is it bragging if it’s true? A diverse program begins with Tartini’s “Devil’s Trill” Sonata, in the arrangement by Kreisler. It’s nice to see a youngster play such “old-fashioned” music — music that will long outlive anyone who sneers at it. Chen makes a big, beautiful, masculine sound. And he is full of confidence, eager to play.

After the Tartini comes Bach: the famous Chaconne in D minor (plucked from a partita). In a kind of letter published in the CD booklet — “Dear Listener” — Chen says he calls this piece “The Soul Cleanser.” That is a neat designation. He marches through the Chaconne with vigor, with almost a teenage lustiness, though he does not exclude purity. You have to admire Chen’s sheer enthusiasm: He does not treat this holy work as a holy object, to be trembled before. He just attacks it with gusto. For me, it is a little big, a little bold — too much a showpiece, too much of a steamroller. But I smiled on hearing Chen, and I think Bach would, too.

In that letter, Chen takes a little shot at Paganini. He does so when praising Wieniawski, in whom he finds more “musical depth” than he does in Paganini. “Really now, at least be more rewarding musically if we have to practice six hours a day just to play one of your caprices!” Julia Fischer begs to differ. She has recorded Paganini’s two dozen finger-challengers for Decca. And she says, “The Caprices represent twenty-four moods, little musical ideas, each one different, each one appealing.” A chacun son goût. And, in this debate, I prefer Fischer’s.

A 27-year-old German, she has not been known as a virtuoso — as a string burner. But she has plenty of technique, as she shows on this disc. And she makes a strong musical case for the caprices: They are not mere finger-challengers. I suspect that young Chen, someday, will come around.

#page#Nicola Benedetti is 23, and, as her name tells you, a Scotswoman. She has made a recording of two beloved Romantic concertos (and the label is, again, Decca). These are two “warhorses,” you might say, although I don’t care for the negative connotation of that word. I am speaking of the Tchaikovsky Concerto and the Bruch Concerto. Max Bruch wrote three violin concertos — but when we say “the Bruch Concerto,” we always mean No. 1, in G minor. The other two are neglected stepsisters.

In her liner notes — which do not take letter form — Benedetti pretty much apologizes for recording the Tchaikovsky and Bruch concertos. They are so familiar, after all. But there is no need to apologize. “I got a right to sing the blues,” sang Eileen Farrell, the late, great soprano. And violinists have a right to record these concertos — especially if they do so as winningly as Benedetti. She has fingers, sense, and panache. Her orchestra is the Czech Philharmonic, conducted by Jakub Hrůša, who turns 30 this year.

Nikolaj Znaider is a violinist in his mid-thirties. As the name tells you, he is a Dane. A highlight of the music season in New York so far has been his Elgar Concerto with the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Sir Colin Davis — one of the foremost Elgar interpreters ever. About this particular performance, I will say only this: I thought the building might levitate. For RCA Red Seal, Znaider and Sir Colin have recorded the concerto, not with the New York Philharmonic, but with a German band: the Staatskapelle Dresden. Sir Colin first performed the Elgar with Menuhin, decades ago. I doubt he has ever had a better partner in this concerto than Znaider — or Hilary Hahn.

She is the brilliant American violinist who turned 30 in 2009. At age 23, she recorded the Elgar with Sir Colin and a proper English band, the London Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon). We are, indeed, swimming in violinists. Will future generations look on this age as golden?

In the crowd I have been discussing, violinists such as Anne-Sophie Mutter and Joshua Bell — born in the 1960s — seem virtually senior statesmen. That is to say nothing of Gidon Kremer and the graying — but still vital — crowd. We could also mention, thinking of worthy violinists, James Ehnes, Frank Peter Zimmermann, Christian Tetzlaff, Leila Josefowicz, Leonidas Kavakos, Midori (just one name, please), others.

It is distressing to leave out the name of Maxim Vengerov, the Russian born in 1974. Several years ago, he suffered some sort of injury, and laid down his violin. He is now attempting a conducting career. It is unclear, from published reports, whether he can, in fact, play the violin. Is he simply taking a hiatus, while concentrating on his conducting? Or is he barred from playing his instrument? He is one of the best we ever heard, or will ever hear. Thankfully, there is a stack of recordings to serve as souvenirs. But there is nothing like live.

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