Pablo SARASATE (1844-1908)
Fantasy on Bizet’s Carmen, Op 25 [13:49]
Concert Fantasy on Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, Op 5 [12:04]
Canciones rusas, Op 49 [8:47]
El canto del ruiseñor, Op 29 [8:43]
La chasse, Op 44 [8:55]
Jota de Pablo, Op 52 [6:04]
Tianwa Yang (violin)
Orquesta Sinfónica de Navarra/Ernest Martínez Izquierdo
rec. 2 July 2009 (Gounod fantasy), 1-2 November 2009 (Carmen fantasy), 3-6 November 2008 (all others), Concert Hall of the Orquesta Sinfónica de Navarra, Pamplona, Spain
NAXOS 8.572216 [58:19]

Tianwa Yang is an uncommonly brilliant young violinist. With a little luck, she will be producing dazzling recordings for us for decades to come. She slipped onto the scene in 2006, edging away from the spotlight occupied by such prominent young ladies as Hilary Hahn, Julia Fischer, Janine Jensen, and Sarah Chang. Tianwa Yang’s deficit of fame is partly because she is in fact younger than all of those stars - having been born in 1987 - and partly because she joined the Naxos record label for a series of the complete works of Pablo de Sarasate rather than recording the usual Tchaikovsky, Sibelius and Brahms for a more glamorous label.

Those who have been listening have been impressed. When Yang’s first Sarasate volume arrived in 2006, it was remarkable it introduced us to a teenage prodigy who had not only the outlandish technical wizardry which teenage prodigies often have, but also a hugely romantic sensibility. To create the formula for Tianwa Yang, one takes the average youthful virtuoso and adds a generous dash of passion. Right from the first phrase of the “Malagueña” (Op 21 No 1), so sultry and so soulful, I knew I was hearing something special.

That “something special” has now brought us her fourth Sarasate disc: there have been two recitals with pianist Markus Hadulla (vol. 1), and now two orchestral discs with the ensemble Sarasate himself founded in Pamplona. This new volume, recorded when Yang was 21 and 22, opens with the legendary Carmen Fantasy, a ravishing cocktail of Georges Bizet’s glorious tunes, Sarasate’s showy virtuosity, and the romantic passion of a trio of Spanish lovers. The Carmen Fantasy is overtly designed to be an unceasing string of “wow!” moments, but even jaded listeners will find a few. Consider the discreet portamenti in the opening tune, for instance (and harmonic portamenti at 2:28), the seductive way Yang phrases the theme at the end of this movement (2:38), the relaxed pizzicato plucks at the beginning of the seguidilla, or the almost inhuman playing at the very end.

The Gounod Romeo and Juliet fantasy really engaged me in parts, but left me waiting for the next “section” to commence at other times, mostly Sarasate’s own fault. La chasse, on the other hand, is a thrill ride, with uncommonly assertive orchestral accompaniment but an electric part for Tianwa Yang to play. After the tender, even vulnerable playing she delivers in the introduction, she introduces the big tune to us at 2:09 with a forceful joy that is utterly irresistible. And, near the end of the piece, the cellos are entrusted with an unusually (for Sarasate) sensitive melody, which the soloist discreetly accompanies. Jota de Pablo is a terrific finale, Sarasate at his beguiling Spanish best, and has the daring required to end quietly.

Not all of this music is fascinating: the Chansons ruses, for instance, are only intermittently engaging, and only somewhat Russian, and El Canto del Ruiseñor takes about three minutes to get over some dull opening material and introduce its alluringly Spanish main theme.

All throughout, Yang seduces, teases, serenades, and sings with her unique sound. How to describe the Yang sound? It’s more aggressive than most in attacking the violin’s lowest notes, which have a full but slightly rough sound that can only be described (in Sarasate, at least) as sexy. It has an almost unreal facility for harmonics, pizzicati, and double stops so well blended together that they don’t sound like double stops at all. It has a genius for occasional notes which are just murmured, to catch our ears and pull them in closer. It’s got big legato phrases that seem to explode across the concert hall in their brilliance. It demands to be heard.

The Orquesta Sinfónica de Navarra has seen over a century of action since it was founded by Pablo de Sarasate, so the historical connection is a bit of a trivia game. It’s a good orchestra, but by no means great; luckily, though, this music is all about the soloist. Ernest Martínez Izquierdo is a sensitive accompanist who makes sure Tianwa Yang is given an engaging partner. The sound balance favors the soloist but at no loss to either orchestra or audience, except at the end of the Carmen fantasy, when Yang’s violin is nearly louder than the entire Navarre band. The excellent notes are by Joseph Gold, a virtuoso violinist and Sarasate expert himself.

Like all the volumes in the series, this one combines Sarasate’s justifiably famous, unjustifiably forgotten, and merely pedestrian works. But the latter have rarely had a more passionate, more brilliant advocate than Tianwa Yang, and even items like the Carmen Fantasy do not get treated with this much bravado and romantic sweep by just anybody. It occurred to me while listening to this CD that what we have here is a 23-year-old virtuoso whose closest neighbors, in terms of style, are “golden age” violinists from the days of lush vibrato, unabashed romantic ardor, and crackly monaural sound. No surprise, then, that in a recent interview Tianwa Yang said that the biggest influences on her style are “Michael Rabin … Joseph Szigeti and Adolf Busch,” especially Busch, whose “playing had a really formative influence on me”. Here, born eighty years too late, is a violinist ready to revive a long-gone sensibility. Sarasate is fortunate to have her, and so are we.

Brian Reinhart

All young prodigies are madly virtuosic, but Tianwa Yang is also madly in love with the music.