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Pablo de SARASATE (1844-1908)
Spanish Dances, Op.26 (1882): No. 7 [5:36] and No.8 [5:00]
Jota aragonesa, Op.27 (1883) [4:48]
Serenata andaluza, Op.28 (1883) [6:01]
El canto del ruiseñor, Op.29 (1885) [8:24]
Spanish Dances, Op.21 (1878) [8:30]; Op.22 (1879) [8:51]; Op.23 (1880) [7:22]
Caprice basque, Op.24 (1881) [5:57]
Zigeunerweisen, Op.20 (1878) [7:53]
Julia Fischer (violin)
Milana Chernyavska (piano)
rec. July 2013, August Everding Saal, Munich
DECCA 478 5950 [68:22]

In her booklet note Julia Fischer asks rhetorically why she has chosen to record Sarasate. This interrogation takes two forms: firstly, she cites the now (surely outdated) view that it’s banal music and that she is known for playing highbrow music ... I paraphrase, but not much. Second, she notes that she has seldom programmed any Sarasate, let alone recorded a note of it before. In expanding, and answering the first point, she seems to have had some kind of Pauline conversion through hearing a performance of Malagueña. As to the second ... well, she has begun to programme some Sarasate of late. That she needs to mount a defence at all strikes me as somewhat unnecessary. Was Zimbalist apologetic recording Sarasate? Was Ricci? Was Sarasate himself? Assuredly not. I’d hoped the tyranny of the post-war ‘three sonata’ programme had simmered down, but as long as good fiddlers like Fischer feel the need to justify playing Sarasate, perhaps we have a way to go yet.

A good fiddler, yes, but a good Sarasate fiddler? Of that I am unconvinced. She possesses aristocratic distinction, clarity of articulation and a sure sense of elegance. She has chosen cannily from the Op.26 Spanish Dances to start the programme. Alarm bells ring, though, as early as Jota aragonesa. Though her passagework is outstanding and there’s pinpoint precision to her reading, where is the spontaneity and the bravado? Where is Manuel Quiroga’s characterisation and instinctive rubati, for instance, or his magical control of contrasts? Where is the febrile intensity in Serenata andaluza? Where Ruggiero Ricci plays it as a brilliant showpiece, fizzing with life, Fischer prefers a reserved, much slower and altogether more ruminative approach. It is doing her less than justice to imply that she should be like Ricci, but perhaps, in turn, she is doing less than justice to Sarasate in presenting only one side of his expressive coin.

Thus, whereas Ricci’s evocative phrasing and intense vibrato vest El canto del ruiseñor with piquant life, Fischer — slower trills, slower tempo — seems to view Iberia from afar. There is something fatally stiff about her approach, and it’s most audible in the Opp. 21-23 Spanish Dances, where some of Sarasate’s greatest writing is to be found.  When she increases and widens her vibrato, as she does in Malagueña, it sounds – to me – unconvincing. The Habanera is metrical, and most everything undernourished. Even in the Caprice basque her passagework is mechanical. Throughout, Milana Chernyavska is a conscientious partner.

The recorded sound is not ideal, lacking warmth and setting the players too far back.

My thoughts are these: this disc has come far too early in her Sarasate exploration. She should have been encouraged to wait until she had absorbed the pieces more fully, and to have played them far more often in concert, to measure their effectiveness and to gauge her own expressive identification with them. In a sense I do understand her booklet defence, because I think she still only half believes in the music.
Jonathan Woolf