RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64 [27:05]
Violin Concerto in D minor [20:38]
Violin Sonata in F minor, Op. 4 [18:58]
Tianwa Yang (violin)
Sinfonia Finlandia/Patrick Gallois
Romain Descharmes (piano - sonata)
rec. 30 August-3 September 2010, Hankasalmi Church, Jyväskylä, Finland (concertos); 15 December 2011, Clara-Wieck-Auditorium, Sandhausen, Germany (sonata)
NAXOS 8.572662 [66:41]
I listened to this CD backwards. For some reason the great Mendelssohn violin concerto, the one we all call “the Mendelssohn violin concerto” even though it’s his second, comes first, followed by the one he wrote as a 13-year-old, followed by his violin sonata, also a teenage work. I chose to listen to the youthful sonata first, and recommend you do the same. It starts, after all, with a bold and striking introduction for the violin alone. These 50 seconds are a sort of violin Rorschach: I hear bits of eastern European music, but I also hear a strong suggestion of J.S. Bach, whom Mendelssohn would champion when he was older.
The rest of the sonata is more conventionally classical, with the piano taking a very prominent role. Tianwa Yang plays with restraint but adds a few touches of personality when she can, especially in that extraordinary introduction; Romain Descharmes, who really has most of the work, provides very sensitive and polished pianism.
Then it’s on to the first violin concerto, which reveals the Sinfonia Finlandia in a large reverberant acoustic - a church. Tianwa Yang takes a more lyrical, romantic approach to the violin writing here, and the results are utterly wonderful; one is reminded just how much of a pleasure it is to hear her play.
I need to address that now. Tianwa Yang is one of the best violinists of the new century. She is young and exceptionally good at playing the notes, but there are many performers like that, many who have breathtaking technical command, never set a foot wrong, never botch a note. Not so many have the emotional maturity or feeling for the music, and this is where she truly excels.
The great concerto in E minor is phenomenally played: a recording which can be compared favorably to any other on the market. Don’t take my word for it. I conducted a test.
I ran a blind “taste-test” of this concerto at the Good Music Guide. I created three-minute clips, encompassing the end of the andante and the beginning of the finale, from classic accounts of the concerto by Jascha Heifetz (1959), Daniel Hope, Cho-Liang Lin, Anne-Sophie Mutter (with Karajan), and Tianwa Yang. Six voters (“judges”) were asked to describe each three-minute sample and rank them in order, best to worst. Naturally, there are limitations: they didn’t hear the whole concerto, and five violinists is a tiny fraction of those who’ve recorded the piece.
Tianwa Yang placed first.
One voter actually had her recording dead last. After I unveiled the results, he continued to dissent, calling it “conventional”, “too clean”, lacking “individuality of sound”. The other five ballots strongly disagreed: “Very different than the rest”, “Best played of the five”, “Rhythms are more articulated, giving a lively feel even though it’s not particularly fast. There are variations in tempo, dynamics, and tone that are well-judged and musical”, “Supreme control of technique, pacing and drive”, “I wouldn’t expect to like embellishments here but they work”, “What a show”, “Gorgeous tone”, “My head is telling me #3 [Lin] is the best, but my heart longs for #5 [Yang]”.
I asked what made Yang “very different than the rest” and got one answer. “I like the way the soloist was able to produce very clear notes while playing at speed and maintaining great rhythm control … the clarity of note was there, as well as a great sense of ease and control”. It’s interesting that I listen to every new Tianwa Yang release for almost the opposite reason: her exquisite emotional control. She has an unerring sense of when to go for pathos, when to opt for lavish tonal beauty, when to indulge and when to avoid sentimentality. My judge compared her technique to that of Hilary Hahn, and I can hear that, but I also hear a maturity and musicianship that’s far, far beyond Yang’s 26 years. The concertos were recorded when she was 24, but these aren’t the flashy performances of a young firebrand, they’re the well-considered, fully mature interpretations of a genuine artist.
The voter who singled out her technical ability, her “ease and control,” wasn’t attracted only to Yang’s raw skill. It was in fact the same voter whose “head” leaned toward another recording, but whose “heart longs” for this one.
Great violinists combine the head and the heart. On this recording a great violinist is at work.
I had six judges listen to Ms. Yang alongside Heifetz, Hope, Lin and Mutter, without telling who was who. The results were eye-opening.
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