We are blessed at the present time with a plethora of fine young violinists, and among the very best is Akiko Suwanai, a superb musician who possesses a gorgeous tone quality, matched by flawless technique. She won the International Tchaikovsky Competition for violinists in 1990, but rather than embarking on an extensive solo career at that time returned to the Juilliard School of Music to complete her training. This dedication has certainly been well rewarded, and her playing and interpretation is beyond reproach. In addition to the Tchaikovsky Competition she has also won the Paganini Violin Competition and the Queen Elizabeth International Competition. In this Philips disc with Ivan Fischer conducting the Budapest Festival Orchestra she brings us works by two contemporaneous Romantic composers, Pablo de Sarasate and Antonin Dvorak. Suwanai has a lovely sense of musicality and impeccable intonation. Although some of the pieces (there are, in fact, three works by Sarasate included, not just the Carmen Fantasy) on the disc are somewhat trivial, Suwanai's interpretation moves them beyond the world of cliché.
It is ironic that Dvorak and Sarasate share the disc. Sarasate was known more as a virtuoso violinist than as a composer--essentially, he composed flashy but trite pieces to display his virtuosity; and he treated Dvorak and his work with some contempt. The liner notes tell us that Sarasate said of Dvorak's violin concerto that it was "nothing but pom-pom-pom and old-fashioned form." This reveals more about Sarasate than Dvorak, of course. Where Sarasate wanted flash, Dvorak provided substance instead, and clearly Dvorak's work was far beyond Sarasate's understanding. Of course, much of Sarasate's Fantasy is simple transcription from Bizet's opera. What Sarasate has added is filigree--lovely ornamentation indeed, allowing the soloist to demonstrate their technique with double stops, harmonics, and the like, but nonetheless insubstantial compared to Dvorak's work.
The Dvorak is practically symphonic in scope. It has always seemed to me that Dvorak, rather than Brahms, was the truest successor to Beethoven, that his musical language shares more with Beethoven in terms of dramatic gesture, harmonic and melodic construction, and particularly rhythmic conception. But interestingly, both Dvorak and Brahms wrote their violin concerti for the same performer, Joseph Joachim, and both apparently suffered at his arrogant and heavy-handed input. Dvorak repeatedly revised his concerto, editing it extensively according to Joachim's instructions; ironically Joachim himself never performed the concerto in spite of this. [Dvorak's Cello Concerto had a similar genesis--composed for a strong-willed cellist who did not ultimately premiere it; but in certain instances at least Dvorak rebelled against the cellist's suggestions, being especially adamant that no cadenza be added.] We can only speculate what the piece would have been without Joachim's advice, but certainly it is a masterpiece now.