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Violin Fantasies
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828) Fantasy for Violin and Piano in C major, D. 934, Op. 159
Heinrich Wilhelm ERNST (1814 - 1865) Fantaisie brillante sur l'opéra 'Otello' de Rossini, Op. 11
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951) Phantasy for Violin with Piano Accompaniment op. 47 (1949)
Franz WAXMAN (1906-1967) Carmen Fantasy
Frank Huang (violin)
Dina Vainstein (piano)
rec. 17-19 July 2002, Country Day School Performing Arts Centre, King City, Ontario, Canada. DDD
NAXOS 8.557121 [57'18]

It seems paradoxical to say that the fantasy – phantasy, fantasia, fancy, etc – is a musical form; more an anti-form. And it is true that sometimes one gets the impression that a composer (or perhaps a publisher) can’t bring themselves to call a work a sonata, falling back into the catch-all ‘fantasy’. Nevertheless, the term ‘fantasy’ has described a variety of identifiable structures in musical history, from the variations-like improvisations on popular tunes of the Renaissance, to the virtuosic opera potpourris of the nineteenth century.

On this CD, the prize-winning young American violinist Frank Huang plays varied examples of the genre, and plays them all very well.

In terms of length, the major work on the CD is the Fantasy D.934, a substantial late work of Schubert’s, which, had it been termed a sonata, I have no doubt would be programmed more often in recitals. Huang deals with its varied demands admirably, starting with a mysteriously veiled tone over the piano tremolandi and establishing a clear relationship with songs like "Nacht und Träume". The advantage of the instrumental form soon becomes apparent as Schubert develops the material through a variety of keys. Huang plays robustly with good variation of tone-colour.

An Allegretto section follows, based on a jaunty theme which perhaps Schubert recalled from his time spent in the Austrian countryside. The piano is at least the violin’s equal here, counter-pointing the main tune with some sprightly figuration, including trills apparently left over from the Trout Quintet. The Russian pianist Dina Vainstein shows herself a lively and sensitive accompanist here and throughout the CD.

Schubert springs a surprise at the next transition when an expected further iteration of the Allegretto tune switches instead to a statement from the piano of the Lied melody "Sei Mir Gegrüsst", on which he then bases three variations. This section of the Fantasy would itself comprise a stand-alone Theme and Variations; the violin varies with division-like triplets and running semiquavers while the piano has its share, contributing lively figures and some more of Schubert’s individualistic trills. Towards the end of this section is an audible reference to Mozart’s variations in his piano sonata K.331 before a return to the opening material with some particularly fulsome tone from Huang. Tremolandi, violin this time, again establish a tranquil mood presaging the less troubled world of Mendelssohn before a lively Presto rounds off this fine work.

Ernst’s Fantasie on two numbers from Rossini’s rarely heard "Otello" is a typical nineteenth century exercise in treatment of operatic themes. In this case, a march and a romance provide an opportunity for variation, ornamentation and cadential links in a well put together piece which is entertaining as well as providing a vehicle for the virtuosic soloist. The technical difficulties are admirably negotiated.

If one listens to the CD straight through, this piece provides a pleasant lightweight interlude between the Schubert and Schönberg’s Phantasy, his final chamber work composed in 1949. The Phantasy’s strong, dramatic gestures quite transcend any formal concerns. This is a work that repays repeated listening.. Twelve note, tone rows … forget it! As Schoenberg himself said: "In the last few years I have been questioned as to whether certain of my compositions are ‘pure’ twelve-tone, or twelve-tone at all. The fact is that I do not know. I am still more a composer than a theorist. When I compose, I try to forget all theories and I continue composing only after having freed my mind of them. It seems to me urgent to warn my friends against orthodoxy. Composing with twelve tones is not nearly as forbidding and exclusive a method as is popularly believed. It is primarily a method demanding logical order and organization, of which comprehensibility should be the main result". Huang plays the work with a clear sympathy for the style.

Like a number of Jewish composers from Middle and East Europe, Franz Waxman fled the increasing Nazi dominance in the 1930s to New York and points further west, eventually composing music for over 140 films. Now a popular concert item, his Carmen Fantasy started life as film-music ("Humoresque", 1947). It comes up more as a vocally-based operatic potpourri than Sarasate’s more overtly violinistic effort in the same genre. Huang allows the work’s geniality to shine through to entertaining effect and a final virtuosic flourish concludes a CD which presents fine examples of the multi-faceted fantasy genre, excellently played.

Roger Blackburn

see also review by Michael Cookson

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