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Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Violin Sonata No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 45 [25:06]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
The Lark Ascending [14:30]
Witold LUTOSŁAWSKI (1913-1994)
Subito [4:49]
Henryk WIENIAWSKI (1835-1880)
Fantaisie brillante sur des motifs de l'Opéra Faust de Gounod [17:07]
Julia Hwang (violin)
Charles Matthews (piano)
rec. Britten Studio, Snape, Suffolk, September 2016

In the words of the liner notes, the notion that performers and audiences can share an emotional platform through the former’s display of true virtuosity is what runs through the four works of the current disc in review. However generic that statement may be, what makes this disc unique is that this is the first non-choral CD instalment under the imprint of St. John’s College, Cambridge. As a graduation and debut recording of the 21-year old 2012 BBC Young Musician finalist Julia Hwang, this disc is also a much-anticipated release for enthusiasts of newcomer virtuosos.

The last of the three violin sonatas completed by Edvard Grieg, the Violin Sonata in C minor is, in the words of the composer, the one of the three with “a wider outlook”. Indeed, written two decades after the second sonata, it demonstrates a substantial gain in profundity and grandeur, even if this does not preclude the involvement of light-footed nationalistic flavours.

For a work that brims over with songful melodies, it is tempting to overdo oneself in the soup of portamento and rubato. So, even if Maria João Pires and Augustin Dumay’s prized account (DG) may have followers for its sensual fluidity and colour, the overcasting of embellished fervour may underscore too much of the bonbons— to borrow Debussy’s description of the Norwegian composer’s music as “pink bonbons filled with snow”. In comparison, the pure-toned Hwang deftly demonstrates that by doing less one can achieve more. Particularly impressive is her handling of the lyrical second theme of the Allegro animato, where her strength in tone, complemented with her insistent yet never exaggerated vibrato, brings out a sense of unaffected integrity.

Ralph Vaughan Williams, like many young British men at the time, part took in the Great War, surviving the brutal trenches in the alien soil of France. Completed in the aftermath of the war, the translucent and gentle beauty of The Lark Ascending, therefore, has an element of poignancy beneath its pristine appearance. Inspired by George Meredith’s poem by the same title, it is in the absolute of nature that Vaughan Williams draws his inspiration for his work. In the momentary glimpse of a sky-bound skylark, one has a vision of an ideal world, a world indifferent to the secularity of socio-political turmoil, unfettered by the bounds of human concerns. Like a sad dream, a fleeting beauty springs from the distant and the small, and from what cannot be forever.

Here, the initially conceived score for piano and violin is presented. While the piano as an instrument cannot sustain the harmonic pedal present during the various cadenzas, the sole voice of the violin in effect creates a touch of fragile and human intimacy in place of the ghostly rumination achieved with an orchestral backdrop.

Hwang and Matthews present a rendition which triumphs in detail and clear-sightedness. Hwang’s sense of dynamics is something to be admired in particular. While the fs and the ffs are approached with subtlety and caution through having them tastefully blended into the quiet world that the work is, Hwang’s sensibility is truly masterful in organically illuminating the pps and ppps. Granted, Matthew Trusler (with Iain Burnside, Albion) may give more life to the cadenzas with elastic flair, yet the scrupulous art of Hwang demonstrates a different philosophy altogether.

The aesthetics of Hwang’s playing, then, is shaped by her unwillingness to compromise both care for each note and fidelity to the score for dramatic effects. Tempo- and dynamics-wise, continuum is sought over gear-shifting contrasts. Given her additional avoidance of excessive smoothing between the notes, clarity and sobriety are always within reach.

Such characteristics further reside, to great effect, in the next two (rarely recorded) works: Lutosławski’s brilliantly angular Subito—where the current disc takes its title, meaning “suddenly” with an underlying nuance of surprise and transformation—and Wieniawski’s charmingly inventive Fantaisie brilliante. Although composed approximately 130 years apart and therefore based on vastly different tonal languages, the two works were intended as virtuosic showpieces for the violin in their time. The former, notably, was conceived with the intention of testing violinists at the 1994 Indianapolis International Violin Competition. In both works, Hwang’s virtuosic spell dazzles with note-to-note precision and piercing clarity. Between the two, the highlight is the latter work, a transcription of Gounod’s opera Faust, where Hwang glowingly handles gems of melodies one after another with joyful authority.

Matthew’s piano accompaniment deserves much praise; the playing is clean, selfless, unforced and immensely musical, and therefore helps to bring out the best of Hwang’s playing. Credit also goes to the sound engineers, who have created an intimate atmosphere with the right amount of reverberation. This recording, then, is a winner for anyone interested not only in virtuosic violin playing in its various moods, but also in good playing generally. If Hwang is to maintain her standard of playing as she has done in this disc, one can only hope to hear more of her performances in the future.

Young-Jin Hur (@yjhur1885)



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