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Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681-1767)
Fantasie No. 1 in B flat major [7:51]
Fantasie No. 4 in D major [4:54]
Fantasie No. 5 in A major [5:03]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Fantasie in C major, D934 [25:22]
Tessa LARK (b. 1989)
Appalachian Fantasy [4:15]
Fritz KREISLER (1875-1962)
Viennese Rhapsodic Fantasietta [8:52]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Tzigane – Rhapsodie de concert [10:12]
Tessa Lark (violin)
Amy Yang (piano)
rec. 2016, American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City

American violinist Tessa Lark has already notched up more than her fair share of awards and academic honours to date. Recipient of a 2018 Borletti-Buitoni Trust Fellowship, a 2016 Avery Fisher Career Grant, Silver Medallist in the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, and winner of the 2012 Naumburg International Violin Competition, she is emerging as one of the finest new talents from across the pond.

Fantasy is not her first CD as such, but it marks her debut album of works for solo violin and piano. It is a new release but the recordings were actually made back in 2016, when Lark was twenty-six. For any violinist, whether well-established or forging out a career, the choice of repertoire cannot be taken lightly. It would be all too simple, for example, to record a selection of familiar repertoire. While clearly striving to add an individual touch to the mix in terms of interpretation or approach, it still runs the risk of being just another CD for violin and piano.

Conversely, a CD of totally new or unknown works might fill a very small niche but is not likely to sell that well. In today’s world, many CDs appear each month with the repertoire which can sometimes seem self-indulgent from the performer’s standpoint. The financial necessity for the product to sell, however, has to be an important consideration – unless, that is, the artist has stumped up some money by way of prior guarantee.

Lark has been extremely shrewd in choosing pieces for this CD. She has decided on a strong musical thread to link everything together, so that each piece, irrespective of style, accords with the theme. And she has come up with a most satisfying mix of pieces for solo violin and those with piano accompaniment. I will keep yet another point until later in the review.

Lark has taken the familiar musical form of fantasy as her theme. The term has been around for centuries, and countless variants have figured ever since, in virtually every genre. Historically they tend to be unpredictable, feisty, pacy, and usually highly virtuosic. Then, having decided on the fantasy theme, for three of her unaccompanied selections, Lark has looked elsewhere than the ubiquitous J. S. Bach for her inspiration. She chose instead to include three solo Fantasies by Telemann, which she intersperses at strategic points during the CD.

Over the last few decades, Telemann – one of the most prolific composers ever – has at last been afforded true recognition and appreciation of his talent, and especially his abundant melodic inventiveness. Each of the three Fantasies recorded here bears that out to perfection, and shows the composer not only influenced by his compatriot Bach, but also Corelli and the Italian school. The three examples take up just one track each, although they are cast in varying numbers of movements. No. 1, which opens the CD, is in four distinct sections, where the finale is a reprise of the second movement. No. 4 is in just three sections, fast-slow-fast, while No. 5 is in six, though this takes into account the fact some movements are reprised.

From the opening bars of No. 1, the quality of the violin playing is most apparent, and in all three Fantasies, the perfectly-formed ornaments, the accuracy of the double stopping, and, most important, the effective simulation of multi-instrumental counterpoint is second to none. But if I had just one slight issue with the CD, it would be with the choice of starting piece. The First Fantasie begins with a slow and, as the sleeve-notes say, hesitant movement of nearly three minutes, and goes on to reprise the second movement as the finale, It does not grab me as a listener from the outset, and, as with, life, first impressions can be very important. If it were my decision, I would have opened with the shorter and pithier Fourth Fantasie, which immediately commands attention with the opening Vivace. In terms of overall balance, too, the third track, Appalachian Fantasy, and the fifth, Viennese Rhapsodic Fantasietta, are both lively, so Telemann’s somewhat more contemplative First Fantasie might have proved a more contrasting track four than the far sprightlier Fourth Fantasie.

After repertoire, the next most important decision facing a soloist is the choice of a pianist who is more than capable of providing support at the same level of expertise, and with whom the soloist will also have great empathy, which then manifests itself in the performance.

For the first work with piano – Schubert’s Fantasie in C, D934 – Lark is joined by Amy Yang, who balances an active career as soloist, chamber musician, and pedagogue. The Fantasie is one of the composer’s longest single movements, and is played without a break, despite it comprising seven independent sections. As in his Wanderer Fantasy for piano, Schubert revisits one of his Lieder, on this occasion Sei mir gegrüßt, D741. He uses it as the theme for four ensuing variations, which really challenge the soloist’s virtuosity. Here, in addition to Lark’s multi-faceted talents already noted, the ability to produce a really warm and expressive tone across the dynamic range is further apparent here, even if the piano at times seems to dominate the texture in terms of recording balance. At just over twenty-five minutes, it is a substantial offering, but because of the immediacy of the playing, and the fact that both girls ladies to be having a ball, there is scarcely a dull moment, and an exciting finish to boot.

At this point it becomes necessary to reveal the third point about Lark. Not only is she a budding superstar in the classical realm, but she is a highly acclaimed fiddler in the tradition of her native Kentucky. Her Appalachian Fantasy for solo violin was premiered at her Carnegie Hall Distinctive Debut in 2017. It has all the distinctive multiple stoppings, and use of scordatura, detuning the G string down to D, and the E string down to D, giving a tuning which makes playing in the key of D far more effective and which, in fiddle parlance, is referred to as ‘Dead Man’s Tuning’. In order to provide a kind of thematic link between the Schubert and Lark’s own Fantasy, she returns to Sei mir gegrüßt at the start, transforming it with an Appalachian twist. In true folk tradition, she then incorporates a medley of Appalachian favourites like Cumberland Gap and Bonaparte’s Retreat. The resulting four minutes or so of pure finger-lickin’ entertainment seems all the more impressive when it is being played on a 1683 ex-Gingold Stradivarius.

Fritz Kreisler was a virtuoso violinist who wrote many shorter encore-style works, some of which he would pass off as being by little-known composers of the past, or those which sought to recreate the dance style of old Vienna. His Viennese Rhapsodic Fantasietta, the last such work in that form, has all the characteristic trademarks and stylistic nuances, which the Lark/Yang partnership once more despatches with considered authenticity and panache, especially the passionate ending.

The CD concludes with one of the true warhorses in the repertoire, Ravel’s Tzigane – Rhapsodie de concert, a fantasy in all but name. From the start of the initial solo-violin section, Lark produces that essential full gypsy-like singing tone, yet ever mindful of the composer’s dynamic range, all delivered with impeccable intonation throughout. Yang’s entry provides a seamless transition to the work’s second section, where her playing faithfully matches the precision of her partner, as the piece moves inexorably towards its ever-more-exciting conclusion. This performance alone must certainly be up there alongside some of the best available.

For me, this CD ticks virtually every box – and more. It is not a random collection of pieces, but is clearly and logically structured. Even without Appalachian Fantasy there is already a good range of styles and mix of solo and duo works. Factor in Lark’s own composition, and it becomes a real winner, with playing of the highest order from both artists, and immensely entertaining along the way. The enclosed booklet is also well conceived, relevant, informative, but with an almost anecdotal feel to it. Personally I might have reordered the first and fourth tracks, and, at times, given a little more prominence to the violinist, but this in no way detracted from my sheer enjoyment of the material and its performance.

Philip R Buttall

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