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.
With this CD Akiko Suwanai -- a first prize winner of the prestigious Tchaikovsky competition -- establishes herself as a world-class violinist of the first order. Her previous recording of the Bruch violin Concerto No. 1 and Scottish fantasy (to which I assigned four stars) displayed her as an artistic violinist with a lyrical bent. While she is no less artistic and lyrical in this new CD her tone has ripened to sheer gorgeousness and her technical prowess is awesome. Some people may buy this CD because of the picture of the beautiful Ms. Suwanai on the cover. If so, they will be richly rewarded by her talent and artistry as well. If you love great violin playing and you have not yet heard Akiko Suwanai, please purchase this CD now. You will be glad that you did.
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We keep hearing that the future of classical music is doomed owing to the disinterest of young people in this genre. I disagree for two reasons. First, my experience with the Chicago Symphony is the complete opposite. Many young people in attendance! Second, and perhaps more to the point, is the huge number of outstanding, gifted, sensitive, mature young musicians. Considering the violin alone, we need look no further than Joshua Bell, Hilary Hahn, Tasmin Little, and Akiko Suwanai. In this recording (which I believe is her second), Suwanai tackles the Dvorak war-horse with incomparable musicianship, sparkling technique, and passion. My experience with some other acclaimed young violinists (e.g., Midori) is that the technique is there, but the interpretation and emotion are lacking. Such is not the case with Suwanai. Her entrance at the opening of the first movement made my hair stand on end (what's left of it!). Tasmin Little's justifiably much-acclaimed recording (on the CfP label) pales by comparison. Suwanai's rendition is clean, clear, dynamic, pulsing. Her virtuosity is incredible. She is to the violin what Mikhail Pletnev is currently to the piano. Although the focus of this recording is the Dvorak concerto, Suwanai sets things up wonderfully by starting off with virtuoso works by Sarasate (a comtemporary of Dvorak, and to some extent Dvorak's "Salieri"?). The incredible thing about Suwanai is her ability to make sense of these works, particularly the "Carmen Fantasy." Normally, these might be throw-away virtuoso show-off pieces, but she makes them work. Not only do they become fine pieces in their own right, but they make for a wonderful introduction to the "main event;" namely, the Dvorak concerto. Getting a little lost in the shuffle is Dvorak's "Mazurek." The irony of including this on the program is that, despite Sarasate's misguided disdain of Dvorak's work, Dvorak nonetheless dedicated this work to his "rival." Perhaps an "in-your-face" composition? All in all, this is a magnificent and prodigous recording and in my opinion is one of the best recordings of 2001.
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