Coco Tomita (violin)
Simon Callaghan (piano)
rec. 23-25 August 2022, The Menuhin Hall, Stoke d’Abernon, UK
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
ORCHID CLASSICS ORC100194 [57:34]
This is the debut recording from the UK and Germany based Japanese violinist, Coco Tomita. She first came to prominence as the winner of the string section of the BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2020. Sensibly, Tomita stays away from heavyweight repertoire and plays to her ample strengths of youthful exuberance and lashings of ripe tone. She is aided in this by a strikingly fine recording which affords her a highly glamorous sound even if it comes somewhat at the expense of her accompanist, Simon Callaghan. Whilst the spotlight remains firmly on the violinist, he is unfailingly responsive and his contribution to the Poulenc, in particular, is urbane and full of whimsy.
One of the two longer pieces included – I won’t say ‘substantial’ as the description hardly fits either it or the Ravel sonata – the Poulenc belies the composer’s apparent dislike of the sound of the solo violin. Written in response to nagging from the great Ginette Neveu, it is bursting with melody and romance and good humour. Tomita is immensely stylish, maintaining a suitably French sense of irony in even the most lush parts.
Most rivals in the Poulenc, such Chantal Juillet with Pascal Rogé on Decca or Dong Suk Kang with Pascal Devoyon on Naxos, are much more aggressive in the opening movement. Tomita’s lighter touch seems to me to get more out of the music. In no way does she lack energy but her less dogged approach allows her greater flexibility in music whose mood shifts virtually from bar to bar. Played too straight, as I think Juillet and Rogé do, some of Poulenc’s essential irony goes missing. Tomita’s dreamy second subject leaves all rivals trailing. Much the same could be said for the hushed communion between piano and violin Tomita and Callaghan find in the slow movement. Tomita’s phrasing her is natural as breathing. Sample the sensual elegance of her phrasing at about 3:30 to see what I mean. She sounds like a great chansonnier.
Some might say that Tomita’s finale is hardly a Presto tragico but I am not sure Poulenc was ever really a truly tragic composer. What she does sound like is a young musician having a grand old time in the studio. Again it is not as ferocious as some rivals but I think they make what is essentially lighter music sound a bit hard driven. Tomita’s account is certainly typical of the musical personality on show on this disc: playful, sunny and spontaneous and delighting in the simple pleasure of the sounds she makes.
Enescu seems to be in vogue with today’s violinists and this recording opens with a solo piece by him evoked by a memory of a country fiddler. I can’t pretend I found it a particularly inspiring piece of music but it isn’t hard to see why a piece which gives the violinist such a technical work out was included.
When it comes to violinists, even the most severe of Joachims has a gypsy fiddler lurking somewhere within them and Tomita is no exception. I am very glad that the current younger generation of soloists are rediscovering the virtuoso tradition and Hubay’s pot pourri of choice morsels from Carmen is an excellent example of the breed (if I can be indulged in mixing my metaphors!) Remarkably, it was written only a year after the opera’s premiere and is distinctive not just on account of the brilliance of its violin writing (it is more than a match for later more famous successors) but for the inclusion of the Toreador Song. Tomita makes it sound like child’s play and her tone gleams like a black and white era movie star but I do wish she had thrown caution to the winds and given us a few more thrills and spills, especially in the concluding gypsy dance which really needs a little more adrenaline. I did have to keep reminding myself that I was listening to a young musician on her first outing to a recording studio. Overall, the Orchid producers deserve considerable praise for the spontaneity of the playing they coax from Tomita, it is one of the album’s great strengths.
I have no reservations whatsoever about the other two filler items, a Boulanger nocturne and a Heifetz arrangement of the Debussy song Beau Soir. If anyone hears more downright sexy violin playing this year than this version of the Debussy, please let me know as I want to hear it! Tomita’s slightly veiled tone grabs hold of the listener and doesn’t let up. I look forward to her taking on the Debussy sonata later in her career. For now, this is an exquisite calling card. The Boulanger, a slight piece of romantic moonlight, is equally good.
The other extended piece, the Ravel sonata, is the best known of those included in Tomita’s programme and comes, as a consequence with the stiffest competition. Ravel is a great choice for the fastidious side of Tomita’s playing. She is able to single out a felicitous detail without disturbing the onward flow of the music. As with the Poulenc, there is a pleasing Gallic insouciance to her demeanour. I would draw attention to the way she treats the final languorous phrase of the first movement almost like a ecstatic sigh. This is a disc which delights in the raw beauty of the sound of the violin. Her Blues take us to fairyland rather than the Mississippi Delta and are none the worst for doing so. Callaghan is a willing partner in this flight of fancy. I might like a little more of Ravel’s dry wit from Tomita perhaps but that is to nitpick. Mullova, for example, goes all out for a spiky sardonic take on this music but misses some of the kittenish play Tomita finds in it. Josefowicz, to my ears, just goes too far in terms of sarcastic wit, tumbling over into grotesquery. Grumiaux seems to have it both ways, fantastical and bluesy but to even mention Tomita in the same breath as that classic recording is testament to just how good she is and it is interesting that only she and the great Belgian violinist go down the route of ‘less sarcasm is more’. Tomita plays closer attention to Ravel’s Allegretto tempo marking in the Perpetuum Mobile finale and even gives Grumiaux a run for his money in terms of elegance. The slower speed gives her and Callaghan more time to point up the imaginative details in the score, particularly in the piano part that Josefowicz, for one, zooms straight past. Mullova is even faster but this seems to be standard across most performances I’ve heard. On the evidence of this new recording, slower is better so well done to Coco Tomita for not sticking to the safety of the herd.
There are extensive, well written notes and biographies included but I still haven’t been able to make sense of the title of this collection, Origins.
The world is blessed with a great number of exceptional violinists so any newcomer has to come up with something to not get lost in the crowd. Tomita sets out her stall extremely well on this excellent, if rather short, debut CD. She plays to her strengths of spontaneity and seemly endless and endlessly varied gorgeous tone. She is clearly also a musician to be heard live. Catch her now, on disc and in person, so you can say you got in early on what will be an exceptional career.
George ENESCU (1881-1955)
Ménétrier (Impressions d’enfance) for solo violin Op28 (1940) [4:01]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Sonata for Violin and Piano (FP 119) (1943) [19:02]
Lili BOULANGER (1893-1918)
Two pieces for violin and piano: I Nocturne (1911) [3:16]
Jenö HUBAY (1858-1937)
Carmen – Fantasie brillante (1876) [10:33]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Sonata No.2 in G major for violin and piano (1927) [17:28]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918) arr. Jascha HEIFETZ
Beau Soir (1877/8) [2:22]