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CD: Crotchet
Download: Classicsonline

Charles-Auguste de BÉRIOT (1802-1870)
Solo Violin Music – Volume 1
Twelve Scènes ou Caprices pour le violon Op.109 [37:44]
Nine Studies [20:45]
Prélude ou Improvisation Op.Posth. [9:25]
Bella Hristova (violin)
rec. St John Chrysostom Church, Newmarket, Ontario, 12-15 February 2009
NAXOS 8.572267 [68:02]
Experience Classicsonline

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 art!

Charles-Auguste 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.

None 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.

The 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.

After 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.

Exceptional violin playing reviving a major work of the solo violin repertoire.

Nick Barnard 





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