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Frank Huang (violin): Laureate series
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Fantasy for violin and piano in C major D.934 Op.159 [24.45]
Heinrich ERNST (1814-1865)
Fantasie Brillante sur l’opéra ‘Otello’ de Rossini Op.11 [12.45]
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Phantasy for violin with piano accompaniment Op. 47  [8.28]
Franz WAXMAN (1906-1967)
Carmen Fantasy [11.20]
Frank Huang (violin); Dina Vainstein (piano)
rec. July 2002, Country Day School Performing Art Centre, King City, Ontario, Canada
NAXOS LAUREATE SERIES 8.557121 [57.18]


The Naxos laureate series of recent competition winners in a number of fields shows an impressive commitment to the promotion of new talent. This recording by the American violinist Frank Huang shows a fine solo talent at the beginning of his career. The programme centres on virtuoso music in the form of Fantasies (in various spellings) from the 19th and 20th century repertoire. The Schubert, with which the disc opens, is certainly the most significant work, and is also that of the greatest musical substance. Huang’s command of virtuoso technique is assured and is allied to a consistently beautiful timbre, without excessive use of romantically “warm” vibrato. The disc starts a little unevenly however, as the piano tremoli that flutter this fantasia into life are less than perfectly well controlled by Dina Vainstein. At least she settles later and shows herself a pianist more comfortable with the vigorous moving passages than with the conception of stillness that this opening requires.

While the violin is consistently beautiful the Naxos engineers have not done so well by Vainstein. Certainly in most of this repertoire - less so in the Schubert than in the other works - the piano is distinctly subservient. The prominent opening piano chords of the Ernst “Otello” fantasy come across as very harsh and lacking in body. While this entire virtuoso repertoire is great fun especially for the violinist and performed with no shortage of flair by Frank Huang, musically this imbalance of importance makes it less enjoyable than more serious chamber music. Herein lies the problem with series such as this. Worthy though the concept is, it would have been more satisfying to hear what young Mr Huang can do with some of the serious violin and piano sonata repertoire that requires more than just dazzling technique. For all its flash and brilliance the Ernst fantasy remains a fairly unmemorable work.

Without doubt the most successful work in this recital is the one that will have the least popular audience appeal. This is the Phantasy by Arnold Schoenberg – one of his very last instrumental works and rigorously applying serial techniques. Although Schoenberg specifically styled it Phantasy for violin with piano accompaniment, and while the piano part is less virtuosic than the violin part, the musical links between the two instruments are so much stronger than in the other works. The result is a composition much stronger and more intense than anything else in the programme. Both players rise to this music as to the manner born. Any suggestion of late Schoenberg being an angular and ugly cluster of noises is mitigated by a convincing and expressive performance. Although the shortest work on the disc it certainly comes across as the most powerful, and the most convincing performance, largely because here it is the music that is foremost, not the performers.

With the Carmen Fantasy by Franz Waxman we are back in the realm of the virtuoso, and after the Schoenberg it seems a shame. However, the origin of this particular fantasy is interesting and it is not one of those Carmen elaborations heard all the time. Waxman (originally Franz Wachsmann) was, like Schoenberg, an escapee from Nazi Germany and ended up working in the film studios of Hollywood, in his case, for Warner Brothers. This work was actually written as film music, for the 1946 Jean Negrolescu film Humoresque in which a wealthy Joan Crawford pursued an indigent violinist played by John Garfield. Like the other tracks, Frank Huang plays with beautiful sound, especially rich in the lower registers when he is not playing too powerfully. The piano has the usual forgettable accompaniment figures and a short introduction from the toreador march. It is all worth a listen once, apart from some patches of surprisingly dodgy intonation, but one cannot be sure if this would really warrant ownership.

At Naxos’s cheap price, this is possibly worth it for the interesting and convincing Schoenberg alone. As for the other works, there are more interesting recital discs out there.

Peter Wells







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