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Tommaso VITALI (1663-1745)
Chaconne in G minor, for Violin and Piano [11:31]
Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Sonata for Violin and Piano, JW VII/7 [18:34]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Five Melodies, Op. 35a [14:16]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Violin Sonata No. 6 in A major, Op. 30, No. 1 [25:31]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Beau Soir [2.28]
Jessica Lee (violin)
Reiko Uchida (piano)
rec. Sauder Hall, Goshen College, Goshen, Indiana, 13-15 February 2015

Themed recitals seem to be in fashion at the moment. Sales may support them, but it appears counter-intuitive in this computer age of digitised music where you can compile your own mix from different tracks in the twinkling of an eye. Then again, a ready-made recital of ‘related’ works that can be played now or uploaded to your favourite listening device may have its own attraction.

The other issue with these recitals, as I inferred in a recent review, is whether they should be judged just in their own right, or whether each work’s performance should stand comparison with the best on the market. That particularly applies when mainstream pieces are programmed; in the case of Vitali’s Chaconne which opens this recital, I counted a good dozen alternatives on this site alone, including those by the likes of Milstein, Heifetz, Oistrakh and Francescatti. There is a middle path, though, and that is whether the chosen programme, and its delivery, works well enough to exceed the sum of its parts.

Violinist Jessica Lee, according to the liner notes, has followed a dream path from child prodigy to fully mature artist, with the cream of America’s music institutions behind her. The same could be said of her associate, pianist Reiko Uchida. I must say I’ve seen so many bios like these that it all becomes noise, reminding me of countless job applicants I’ve assessed, with glowing CVs all alike. So let me cut to the chase then based on results: Jessica Lee’s musical heart is in the right place, her taste is impeccable, and her judgement spot-on.

Naturally, the ‘colors’ here are tonal. Lee and Uchida play the Vitali Chaconne that has been through several arrangers’ hands, with its polychromatic mix of Baroque and Romantic harmonies. From the outset, the parameters of their recital are established: a warm, wide and welcoming piano introduction to a radiantly lyrical violin line – the tone is smallish, delicate and slightly brittle, but always intensely musical. This impression may be partly through the recording, which places Lee in a more sharply defined focus. Her style is also well suited to the rhapsodic Janáček sonata that follows, empathising with the work’s emotive nature. This is typical Janáček, with its broad spectrum of effects tapping into his Czech homeland, with hints of French impressionism and early twentieth century Russia, in a patchwork of strongly contrasting episodes, violent outbursts alternating with sweetly lyrical fragments. Lee and Uchida deliver it persuasively, underscoring the tonal richness of the piece.

Prokofiev’s Five Melodies are transcriptions for violin of songs for voice, but for vocal lines quite different from the harsh and angular kind he wrote, say, for The Love for Three Oranges. There is now a soaring lyricism which transfers so naturally to the violin that Prokofiev felt they came out better as such. These miniatures fit closely with Lee’s aesthetic, as she gives ‘voice' to them through a wonderfully broad palette of tonal range and expression. With Uchida in deft support, this is Prokofiev at his most charming and whimsical. It’s then something of a shock to jump back in time to Beethoven’s sixth violin sonata, but Lee acclimatises us quickly to it, making her case that this is a ‘sleeper’ among these sonatas, as a work of great poise and classical grace, but with emerging awareness of a new musical age. In a way it is atypical Beethoven, for once at peace with his world, uncommon in its “tenderness and gentility, humour and compassion”, as the liner notes say. Lee and Uchida perform it with apt sensitivity and, where demanded, sonorous brilliance. To finish the recital, they caress the ear with a sumptuous Heifetz arrangement of Debussy’s Beau Soir.

You might have guessed by now I’ve taken this CD on its merits, avoiding any work-by-work comparisons. I was soon beguiled by the unanimity with which Lee and Uchida have approached and delivered their programme, deciding it was a rather superior job lot. So to answer my earlier implied question of whether this recital exceeds the sum of its parts – yes, I certainly believe it does.

Des Hutchinson



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