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Camille SAINT-SAňNS (1835-1921)
Works for Violin and Orchestra
Caprice andalou Op. 122 (1904) [9:50]
Romance in C major Op. 48 (1874) [6:44]
La Muse et la PoŤte Op. 132* (1910) [16:37]
Morceau de Concert in G major Op. 62 (1880) [10:40]
Havanaise in E major Op. 83 (1887) [8:24]
Romance in D flat Op. 37 (1871/78) [5:41]
Introduction et Rondo Capriccioso Op. 28 (1863) [9:10]
Tianwa Yang (violin)
Gabriel Schwabe* (cello)
MalmŲ Symphony Orchestra/Marc Soustrot
rec. 2014, MalmŲ Konserthus, Sweden, (live, August 8 - Op. 132 & 37)
NAXOS 8.573411 [67:07]

Even in an age awash with soloists of prodigious technical ability, Tianwa Yang’s playing stands out. Her series of the complete concerted works of Sarasate on Naxos has been rightly praised for both their phenomenal technical address and—to my mind equally important—the musical aptness of her playing. Interestingly her expanding discography has chosen to avoid as yet any of the “big” core concerto repertoire, with the exception of the Mendelssohn and the Lalo Symphonie Espagnol. That trend continues here with her disc of Saint-SaŽns’s concertante violin music.

Both the music included here, and indeed all of the Sarasate, hark back to another era when concert promoters and soloists required “novelties” to fill out their programmes. Fine as much of the Sarasate music is, personally I feel it is more often strong as a vehicle for display rather than as music that bears repeated listening. To be blunt, Saint-SaŽns is a more interesting composer of absolute music than Sarasate. Indeed, he was pretty much a perfect composer for these 19th-century novelties with the audience-driven requirements for a combination of brevity, melodic appeal and technical fireworks. The success of these works can be measured by the fact that at least two have survived in the current standard repertoire: the Havanaise and the Introduction et Rondo capriccioso. All of the others have been recorded by various virtuosi in the past. But I cannot think of another single disc with all of this repertoire together, which would be a valuable USP in its own right—even before one factors in that in each instance Yang's performance of any given piece equals or betters even the most famous versions in the catalogue. Very often, these smaller concerted works are used as the fillers for one of the three Saint-SaŽns violin concerti. This was the case on the BIS discs with Jean-Jacques Kantorow and the Tapiola Sinfonietta, and the older EMI/Warner set from with soloist Ulf Hoelscher with Pierre Dervaux conducting the New Philharmonia. Both Hoelscher and Kantorow are very fine, sensitive players. If there is room in your collection for just one set of this music and you already have either of those then they will suffice. But if you are considering such a selection of music for the first time, this new disc must leap to the top of the heap.

To quote the back of the new Naxos disc, it is not just Yang's “stunning[ly] effortless virtuosity” but also her “uncanny affinity”—in that case for Sarasate, but now one assumes this subgenre as a whole. Her entire set-up as a player seems suited to this music; her vibrato is quite lean and febrile, her technical approach has the precision of a rapier rather than the bludgeon of a broadsword. For sure, there is power and bite aplenty when required, but this is most definitely not the big into-the-string playing of the Russian school. Yang brings a nonchalant bravura brilliance to her playing, which fits this repertoire like a glove. Yet this extends far beyond just churning out the virtuoso passagework. Yang intuitively points a phrase or teases the rubato around one of Saint-SaŽns’s elegant melodies with disarming perfection. Back in the day, the formidably technically gifted Ruggiero Ricci recorded many of these works on Vox/Turnabout. For many collectors including myself Ricci/Vox were the go-to combination for rare concertante violin repertoire. Listening again to those pioneering discs, one still finds much to admire, but Ricci does not try to be as sophisticated or suave a player as Yang. Aaron Rosand is another of the old-school players whose work can be found on Vox. He has a more gallant style than Ricci, more in tune with this repertoire. The thing I always like about Rosand is that he takes risks technically and musically. His is big personality playing with bags of attitude and hauteur, but this comes at the price of tiny little technical blips along the way. That approach can bring its own exciting rewards in some repertoire but in the works offered here part of the listener’s delight is in the apparent ease of the delivery—and by that measure alone even Ricci and Rosand cannot surpass Yang. In any case, the Vox recordings were never going to be a technical match for the new disc.

At which point it is only right and proper to give due praise both to conductor Marc Soustrot and the excellent MalmŲ Symphony Orchestra, as well as to the very fine engineering and production by Sean Lewis. Saint-SaŽns does not give the orchestra that many opportunities to shine in their own right. Conversely, they do need to be very attentive accompanists. Yang toys with the music in such an appealingly coquettish way that it would be very easy for the orchestral parts to sound either tentative or simply out of sync. Lewis provides an ideally warm and detailed recording environment, with Yang clearly front and centre without being unduly spotlit in the aural mix.

Six of the works on this CD hover around the ten-minutes-or-less mark. The exception is the enduringly curious La Muse et le PoŤte, written as late as 1910. Curious, because it is a sixteen-minute single movement for violin and cello. Here Yang is joined by cellist Gabriel Schwabe in what is easily the most convincing performance I have ever heard of this appealingly lyrical work. Apparently it started life as a Piano Trio tribute to a patroness and admirer of the composer, which he described as a conversation between the two string players rather than a virtuoso competition. It was the publisher Durand, much to Saint-SaŽns’s annoyance, who insisted on giving it the title above. Even so, the key is the spirit of Gallic lyricism it promotes rather than the Germanic rigour that Saint-SaŽns felt was dominating music in the early 20th Century. Whatever the musico-political motivations, Yang and Schwabe are superbly matched soloists; the piece emerges as much more engaging and indeed musically interesting than it had struck me in the past. All the more impressive, given that this is one of two items recorded in concert. Both in terms of execution and engineering there is no discernible different between the studio and live environments.

Of the rest of the programme, the best-known works receive consistently excellent performances. Yang's playing of Spanish-influenced music is well-known, so no surprise that the Havanaise has all the lilt and allure that one could hope for. Likewise, the Introduction—an ideal balance between lyrical beauty and sheer brilliance. My favourite of the rest is the Morceau de Concert which embodies all the best features of this style of music; ear-tickling tunes teeter on the edge of delicious sentimentality balanced by passages of crowd-pleasing virtuosity.

Normally with a disc of music in similar style it can be thought that it is better to dip into this kind of programme rather than listen straight through. I must admit I assumed this would be my feeling regardless of the calibre of the music making. But to be honest, each time I have listened to this disc I have found myself being drawn from one piece onto the next. Credit for this must be shared by both performers and the composer. Saint-SaŽns provides sufficient variety within a basic musical template, and Yang and Soustrot respond with readings of wonderful sensitivity and nuance underlying the dazzling brilliance when required. The key here is Yang’s aforementioned affinity. You can practice your scales and double-stopping and bow exercises but you cannot practice musicality. Yang’s intuitive sense of rightness in this repertoire is something that cannot be learnt.

If one is being very picky, the collection is not quite complete. Kantorow included an Ysšye arrangement of an Etude, and Hoelscher (and others) the concertante Prelude to Le Deluge. As the current disc runs to 67 minutes one or both might have been included here if one is greedy. But as I wrote before, each of the performances given here are as fine as I have heard. This is music that is meant to be attractive and appeal. Its function is not to be profound or life-changing but that does not mean it cannot be life-enhancing. Saint-SaŽns found a perfect fusion of form and function, and in turn Tianwa Yang is the ideal modern interpreter. My only surprise is that a recording of this calibre has been held in the Naxos vaults for more than three years. Delightful in every respect.

Nick Barnard



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