Having been less than thoroughly enthused by the recent Naxos
disc of de Bériot two-violin duets (see review)
it was with a certain degree of resignation that I received this
disc – listed as volume 1 of the complete solo violin music. Add
to that an unknown violinist - albeit a winner of an international
competition - and an uninspiring cover and you can understand
that my expectations were low. What a pleasure then to report
that this disc is an absolute winner; well, except for the cover
de Bériot was a Belgium violinist/composer who was instrumental
in founding the Belgian violin school which flourished in
the later part of the 19th Century. His compositional
legacy has been deemed less significant than his pedagogical
one. These discs from Naxos are really the first systematic
re-evaluation of his work as a composer. His compositional
gifts are clearly an encyclopedic knowledge of the violin
allied with a gift for lyrical melodic lines. His weaknesses
are a less than convincing command of form – hence the 3
Duo Concertantes on the disc mentioned above labour under
a limited and rather predictable three movement form coupled
with less than memorable thematic material. For any composer
in the first half of the 19th Century composing
for a solo violin the two great works that comprise the Bach
Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin (BWV1001–1006) and
the Paganini 24 Caprices for solo violin loom large.
The first published edition of the Bach dates from 1802 (the
year of de Bériot’s birth) and the Paganini from 1805-09.
De Bériot’s real skill with his 12 Scènes ou Caprices pour
le violon Op.109 is that he neither tries to emulate nor
is daunted by either of these monolithic predecessors. Instead
he plays to his own strengths outlined above and produces
works of enormous charm, musicality and real worth. The key
lies in the fact that each of the Scènes are given
an illustrative title which allows de Bériot to follow his
natural early romantic muse as well as focusing on one particular
technical aspect of violin technique. Hence the very first
Scène is entitled La Séparation. This starts
in melancholy octaves which are then thematically repeated
but with richer harmonies before a central agitato
section in almost continuous double stopping. It’s very easy
to imagine a narrative for this piece to fit the music as
described. Jumping forward the fifth Caprice is entitled
La Fougue which translates as The Spirit/The Fire.
It’s a 3 minute cascade of complex passage-work and fiendishly
difficult chordal writing. The musical diversity across the
thirty eight minutes of these pieces is a delight.
of which would count for much if they were not played with
the extraordinary virtuosity and musical maturity of Bella
Hristova. Young violinists with stainless-steel techniques
seem to be two-a-penny currently. Naxos have issued debut
discs by several but to my ear remarkable technical address
all too often comes in harness with musical anonymity. Not
so here – the 24 year old Hristova combines jaw-dropping technical
prowess with real style. To my mind this is old-fashioned
playing in the very best sense. In track 1 just listen at
1:02 where she bends the chord – it’s a nuance but for her
a natural and effective one. Or else track 8, Saltarella
only 13 seconds in where she tosses off a little run of
thirds with such ease and grace. I could go on and on about
things that are hard on the violin that she makes sound easy.
Here, however, is one general thought: in essence the violin
is a linear instrument – it plays lyrical lines better than
vertical harmonies. So when Bach writes his fugues or the
Chaconne the greatest problem is to produce even tone
across all of the chords or inner part-writing. De Bériot
writes horizontally and vertically as well and Hristova’s
single greatest achievement is the way she is able to tease
out the horizontal lines implied in the vertical writing.
This is coupled to playing that evinces a glorious range of
tone, dynamic and colour. A real feature is fantastic bow-to-string
contact; it is always said that great players are truly defined
by their bow control not their left hand dexterity.
liner-notes say that she plays on a 1655 Nicolò Amati violin that
used to belong to Louis Krasner – the greatest compliment I can
pay her is that she does her instrument and its heritage proud.
If you dipped into any of these pieces I cannot imagine any listener
being anything but thrilled by the quality of the music-making
here. One little mystery, I really enjoyed the engineering of
this disc – the violin well placed in a generous acoustic with
plenty of detail and instrumental character audible. Yet this
is the same location as for the previous duo disc where I found
the acoustic positively unhelpful.
the sheer thrill of discovery of the Caprices the Nine
Studies that follow are musically more modest but to be
fair that is implied by the title. Each focuses more specifically
on one aspect of violin technique and I’m sure their function
was primarily pedagogical. But in Hristova’s hands they transcend
this potential limitation and become works of some stature.
Again her ability to “layer” the music bringing out individual
strands is exceptional. This well planned programme is completed
by the dramatic Prélude ou Improvisation Op.Posth. At
some nine and a half minutes long this is by far the longest
individual movement on the disc. I love the freedom and truly
improvisatory way in which Hristova plays this. I cannot stress
too strongly her intuitive musicality – there is a “rightness”
to all her choices that I find quite utterly compelling. If
I have missed other discs by her I will be seeking them out
immediately; if this is her debut disc it is hugely auspicious.
This is easily the best violin playing of this kind of repertoire
I have heard in a very long time. I hope Naxos will encourage
her to record the continuing volumes of this repertoire and
much - or anything frankly! - beside.
violin playing reviving a major work of the solo violin repertoire.