Henryk WIENIAWSKI (1835-1880) Caprice Op. 18 No. 4 in A minor (arr. Kreisler) [1:26]
Fritz KREISLER (1875-1962) Viennese Rhapsodic Fantasietta [8:18]
Antonio BAZZINI (1818-1897) La Ronde des lutins, scherzo fantastique [5:09]
Niccolò PAGANINI (1782-1840) Introduction and Variations on “Nel cor più non mi sento” from Paisiello’s La molinara [7:39]; Caprice Op. 1, No. 1 in E [1:47]; Caprice Op. 1, No. 5 in A minor [2:25]
Franz WAXMAN (1906-1967) Carmen Fantasie [10:47]
Pablo de SARASATE (1844-1908) Zigeunerweisen [7:15]
Manuel PONCE (1882-1948) Estrellita (arr. Heifetz) [3:09]
Charlie Siem (violin); Caroline Jaya-Ratnam (piano)
rec. 26-27 July 2010, Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, Wales
WARNER CLASSICS & JAZZ 2564 67804-7 [47:51]
Apparently, 24-year-old Charlie Siem is already a celebrity. I had never heard of him before receiving this disc, but when I typed his name into Google’s search bar, the AutoComplete function suggested these searches to me: “Charlie Siem Twitter,” “Charlie Siem Model,” “Charlie Siem Vogue,” and, occupying the very top spot on the list, “Charlie Siem Girlfriend”. The “Vogue” search revealed a shirtless photo from the Italian edition of the magazine. The Google précis of Siem’s homepage is a quote from a Belgian newspaper: “the hearts of the (female) fans belonged without a doubt to the young British violinist Charlie Siem.” Further down the first page of search results is a review by an enamored young woman who assures us that “the violin has never been sexier” and indeed that she no longer fantasizes about rock musicians. The message is clear: young Charlie Siem is a smash hit with the ladies. Is he a success with the violin?
Yes, in a sense. He’s a highly talented virtuoso. He can spin notes with the best, no doubt a product of his training with Shlomo Mintz. Wieniawski, Bazzini, and Sarasate pose no technical trouble for him, since he can leap and bound across the page with ease; only Paganini’s first etude really causes him difficulty, as near the end he starts to sound like a boat buffeted by thick waves.
But this album is forty-eight minutes (just) of empty virtuosity: aside from the considerable energy and stamina on display here, and the ability to devour dare-devil runs and pizzicato jumps with ease, there’s not much else going on. Just to name a few other violinists in (or slightly older than) Charlie Siem’s age bracket, does he have the elegant classical sensibility Julia Fischer has shown in her Mozart and Bach? Does he have the steely fingers and coolness under pressure of Hilary Hahn? Does he have the heart-on-sleeve intensity Tianwa Yang brings to even the merest trifles? Does he have the risk-taking taste of Jennifer Koh, or the warm, welcoming tonal beauty of Bella Hristova? There’s really no way to tell. His Ronde des lutins has a smoother sound than Chloe Hanslip’s occasionally scratchy reading, but it also feels less dangerous, less on-the-edge.
What little evidence we have of Siem the expressive artist rather than the technical wizard comes in the Waxman Carmen Fantasy and the Sarasate Zigeunerweisen. Not surprisingly, he offers generously romantic interpretations of each, though he is not as romantic or seductive as Tianwa Yang, who though a year younger has already nearly finished recording the complete works of Sarasate for Naxos. True, Yang is working with Sarasate’s rather than Waxman’s Carmen, but she is breathtakingly wide with her rubato and her pianissimo notes stop time. Yang’s (orchestral) Zigeunerweisen, nearly two minutes slower, is enchanting where Siem’s is merely well-sung; it’s not exaggerating to say that in some passages her every note is intoxicating in depth of tone and emotional commitment. Siem never strikes the ear that way.
Regardless of its lack of depth, this album will serve its purpose. Charlie Siem will continue to inspire Google-gossip about his girlfriend(s). He will acquire more Twitter followers, eager to read such profound Siemisms as, “I didnt get the truffle pasta after all!! but the veal was delicious”. Warner Classics will sell some copies based on their new star’s good looks and dazzling pyrotechnics, and everyone will go home happy.
Siem has previously recorded sonatas by Grieg and Elgar for Challenge Classics, a disc which received good reviews - and, ironically, featured a better cover photo. His liner-notes seem intelligent - though his spoken introduction to “Estrellita” proves he has no idea how to speak Spanish. His playing has great promise. He feels a personal connection with some of the music, can brag of the mentorship of the great Shlomo Mintz, and enjoys a good cut of veal. I like veal, too. But I also enjoy serious musicianship, which is not Charlie Siem’s primary aim here.
The booklet contains no fewer than seven full-page photographs of Charlie Siem. Am I allowed to review those? On the cover, he appears to be wearing rather a lot of lipstick, or in the words of my French flatmate, “Either he has just bit his lip, or he is a glamorous boy!” The portrait on page two is a classic pose, violin under the chin and at the ready. Page ten’s photo is a stark contrast: hair lit and blown back, lipstick on again, clad in a jacket and the merest of undershirts, our young hero gazes up into the light. Two black-and-white photographs suggest what the cast of Mad Men will be looking for should Don Draper need a violinist for his forthcoming wedding.
The snaps on pages five and seven present almost exactly the same pose, and I flipped back and forth a few times before realizing — he’s wearing a different suit! Ah, Charlie, you changed your jacket but you’re wearing the same tie. In fact, you’ve got the same tie on in every photograph. You’re going to need to do a better job accessorizing if you want to get on television. That’s what this is about, right? I’ve been assuming that this whole production is because you want to be a celebrity and appear on the Christmas Doctor Who like Katherine Jenkins. Maybe I’ve misread your intentions. I was very keen to praise your skill purely as a musician, but before I can do that, your album booklet needs at least three more photographs of you, the “special thanks” should double in length, you need to buy a couple of new ties, and the English edition of Vogue needs to pick up that photo spread. Then I’ll be able to take you seriously!
Charlie Siem plays well, but not well enough to be humored in his delusion that he is a pop star.