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Antonin DVOŘÁK (1844-1908)
Violin Concerto in A minor (1879) [29.32]
Mazurek, op. 49 for violin and orchestra (1879) [6.00]
Pablo de SARASATE (1841-1904)

Zigeunerweisen, op. 20 for violin and orchestra (1878) [7.46]
Carmen Fantasy, op. 25 for violin and orchestra (1879) [11.37]
Akiko Suwanai (violin)
Budapest Festival Orchestra/Iván Fischer
Recorded at the Italian Institute, Budapest, December, 1999
PHILIPS 289 464 531-2 [55.27]

 

In 1990, Akiko Suwanai became the youngest ever first prize winner at the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, and launched immediately into an international recital and concerto career. Her début recording of Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto with Sir Neville Marriner in 1996 was highly acclaimed, and augmented her already extensive international career as a soloist.

Her latest album features two composers of nearly identical time periods but very different professional and compositional backgrounds. Dvořák was the son of an innkeeper and a failed violinist who turned to composition in his thirties, emerging as Eastern Europe’s most prominent romantic symphonist. Sarasate was a young, internationally celebrated virtuoso violinist who spent much of his life arranging opera arias and fantasies, only turning to his own compositional career later in life. But both Dvořák and Sarasate were strongly influenced by their native folk music, and the compositions of each demonstrate an acute awareness of this style.

Pablo de Sarasate’s two most famous offerings open the album. The familiar Zigeunerweisen ("Gypsy Airs") is the quintessential showpiece, and one is immediately aware that it was composed by a violinist. Based on Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies, the opening section is an adagio featuring such tricks of the trade as pizzicato and vast slides over the fingerboard. Ms. Suwanai displays a wonderful dynamic range, capturing the overtly dramatic style to great effect. The ensuing allegro integrates pizzicato into the frantic melody, and this treacherous section is not executed as flawlessly as in other recordings. Nor is the tempo as furiously fast as in recordings by Heifetz or, especially, Ruggiero Ricci, but is quite exciting nonetheless.

The Carmen Fantasy is an abbreviated version of the two Suites as seen through the eyes of Sarasate. This typifies the composer’s earlier propensity for orchestration, using the abovementioned acrobatic techniques as well as offsetting melodies between soloist and orchestra and displacing themes by up to three octaves. Sarasate has a seemingly inexhaustible arsenal of ornamental ideas to spice up the already provocative dances, and Ms. Suwanai’s abundant virtuosity is on full display.

Though dedicated to Sarasate, Dvořák’s Mazurek is a markedly different concept of the violin showpiece. A driving Bohemian rhythm is the central idea, rather than a flashy, heavily ornamented melody, and one can hear the heavy hands of a composer in contrast to the fleeting fingers of Sarasate. But the Mazurek has a charm all its own. Dvořák intersperses flourishes that complement the melody rather than dominate it, and its more flowing formal structure is quite cohesive. Even here, Dvořák’s symphonic nature is evident. The accompaniment plays a more vital role, and Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra shine in this idiom. Ms. Suwanai is equally comfortable in this less common work, and gives a beautiful performance.

Dvořák’s Violin Concerto stands as one of the titans of the romantic violin literature. Written for the legendary Joseph Joachim (for whom Brahms composed his concerto), the Concerto underwent an extensive period of revision before its première, illustrating Dvořák’s awareness of the genre’s importance. It is more symphonic in nature than a virtuoso tour de force, and requires a rich tone to compete with the substantially scored accompaniment. The orchestra opens with the rhapsodic minor theme, and, omitting the extended introduction common to the period, the violin interrupts with a more solemn thematic statement. Both Ms. Suwanai and Mr. Fischer display a beautiful ensemble throughout the movement, and the soloist displays an acute awareness and ability to by turns dominate and accompany the orchestra. Brilliant technical control and dynamic range mark this movement. Dvořák elected to forgo a recapitulation and instead segues directly in to the Adagio, a passionate and dynamic cantilena. The Finale exhibits Dvořák’s affinity for folk melodies with a giocoso, syncopated theme. The movement displays an array of distinctly Bohemian rhythms, and the rhythmic precision of both orchestra and soloist faithfully conveys its playful nature.

Mr. Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra have collaborated for years on music of composers such as Bartók and Liszt, always bringing a regional flair seldom captured by the more prominent European orchestras. The winds stand out for their warmth of sound, and the whole ensemble demonstrates an unsurpassed attention to detail. Ms. Suwanai on this album seems to have gained a new level of maturity and subtlety in her playing, and can surely be counted among today’s most dynamic and talented young violinists.

Erich Heckscher

 



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