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Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Fischer Queen

From the Classical Vault Dept.: We in New York’s Capital Region were lucky to have a few visits from violinist Julia Fischer as her career was beginning to skyrocket. Here are my accounts of three of those appearances. I make no apology for my unabashed fandom.


Julia Fischer, violinist, and Milana Chernyavska, pianist
Union College Memorial Chapel
Oct. 28, 2005

Julia Fischer
I HEARD HER PLAY; now I’m a believer. The 22-year-old violinist Julia Fischer has been charting a meteoric rise throughout the world, with significant performances this year throughout the U.S. That we got her here in Schenectady, on the heels of triumphant performances of the fiendish Sibelius Violin Concerto with the Boston Symphony, is a tribute both to series organizer Daniel Berkenblit’s foresight in choosing talent and to Fischer’s own love for playing chamber music.

And thanks to our dedicated Homeland Security forces, what should have been a trio was reduced to two when cellist Danjulo Ishizaka, no doubt packing plastique in his Stradivarius, was denied a visa. Fischer and pianist Milana Chernyavska came up with a program just as compelling as what had been planned, with an added bonus: We got to hear Fischer make her way through the pinnacle of the violin repertory, Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor.

What’s to follow will be a shameless paean to Fischer’s performance, so I want to make sure to emphasize that in her partnership with Chernyavska – they played sonatas by Schumann and Franck – the two of them worked together as one. In a trio, the pianist is understood to have an equal footing. As a duo with violin, there’s a too-long tradition of being a back-seat player.

Here there was no such diminishment. Chernyavska was an eager and sensitive player, easily the master of the difficult passages both pieces provide, while remaining entirely in sync with Fischer. It was glorious work.

Although Cesar Franck wrote only one violin sonata, the piece is so often played that you wish he’d offered something else just for relief. Further testament to its popularity is the fact that so many other solo instruments, like flute and cello, have plundered it. By the time we reached that point in the program, however – it was the only announced work on the second half – I knew that we were in for something special.

Like so much of Franck’s music, it speaks for itself. Serve the music well and it works its magic. Fischer has a fast vibrato and a focused tone, which added to the intensity of her transparent interpretation. The piece begins with a repeated query from the piano, answered by the violin with what turns out to be not only the opening theme but also a motif that will sound throughout the piece, Franck having been passionate about tying movements together with repeated motifs. There’s an edginess to the relationship between the two instruments throughout the work that heightens the dramatic tension, and the players understood and made the most of that friction.

Like Brahms, Schumann wrote three violin sonatas. Unlike Brahms’s, they’re rarely played. But that Schumann’s fate: To be relegated to the category of Brahms Lite. His Sonata No. 1 certainly underscores that perception. It’s a pleasant though lightweight piece, achieving much of its effect through its brevity. There’s a free-flowing, almost improvisatory feel to it, yet it requires excellent technique from both players. Unlike the Franck sonata, this is a piece that benefits from a stamp of personality, and Fischer and Chernyavska ably did just that, adding appropriate amounts of fire and mystery to the work.

Schumann wrote a set of piano accompaniments to Bach’s solo violin sonatas, no doubt meant as a gesture of respect. Fortunately, they’re almost never played. And the way Fischer – who played the entire program from memory – wrapped herself in and around Bach’s Partita No. 2 (solo version, of course) was nothing short of miraculous.

I can quibble with some of her choices, such as dropping the repeats of the second sections of the first four movements – but that has become a fairly common practice. In the Chaconne, she rushed the finish of a lengthy arpeggiated section, losing some of its dramatic effect; likewise, I don’t think she took advantage of the dramatic possibilities at the end of the Chaconne’s D Major section.

But such criticism pales in the context of the overall wonder of her playing. Although she plays a big-toned Guadagnini, she is clearly familiar with Baroque styles of playing and applied some of that leanness to her approach. It was an excellent synthesis of styles.

Each of the Partita’s movements is a dance, from the stately Allemande that opens it, a single-voiced, four-quarter time lament laced with triplets, to the mighty Chaconne. In the Sarabande, she tossed off the many difficult double- and triple-stops with unnerving ease, while the high-kicking Gigue was a marvel of a virtuoso bow-arm.

And then the Chaconne. No 22-year-old should have this kind of facility with so demanding a work. It’s not just the requirements of the notes themselves; it’s a quality that lurks behind them, in the way that Bach sequenced the many variations, in the changes of mood, in the overall dramatic arc, in that undefinable quality that informs a work of such genius.

Yet she played this as if she’d been playing it all her life – which I suppose she has – and allowed us to fall into the work’s mysterious depths, accompany her on a fabulous journey and emerge enriched by the experience.

The program as a whole was so well chosen that it I couldn’t imagine what might be offered as encore, but they chose the wonderfully appropriate “Variations on a Theme of Corelli” by Fritz Kreisler, one of his pastiche works, this one in the style of Tartini.

Metroland Magazine, 3 November2005


Julia Fischer, violinist, and Milana Chernyavska, pianist
Union College Memorial Chapel
April 5, 2007

ALTHOUGH SHE'S BEEN cranking out a series of warhorse concerto recordings – with a waxing of the Brahms opus her latest – violinist Julia Fischer returned to Union College last week with a recital program of far less familiar works. Two Octobers ago she and pianist Chernyavska were to make their area debut as part of a trio, but the cellist’s visa fell victim to the punch-drunk zeal of our so-called Homeland Security and we were given instead a program that set a template for this latest one, with (fairly) Romantic duos framing a Bach solo sonata.

Milana Chernyavska
I have to qualify that Romantic moniker because this time we also got the sonata by Debussy, an oddball piece that proved to be his final finished work. It seems at first to be a series of fragments and gestures, but it leaves you, after its brief three movements, with a surprising sense of unity. Two ethereal piano chords herald the violin’s entrance with a characteristically halting theme, and the opening movement unfolds like a street scene, with overheard bits of gossip, snatches of song and ambient noise rendered with a large palette of the fiddle’s effects: the gritty sound way up on the G string, false harmonics, trills and ostinato, along with a sprinkling of blue notes that give the piece a gypsy sound.

It’s a varied and brilliant journey to the finale, itself a witty succession of false endings that didn’t quite fool the enthusiastic audience. The compelling nature of the piece also tends to hide the virtuosic requirements for both pianist and violinist – there’s no showing off for its own sake, and Fischer and Chernyavska don’t indulge in the flashy arm flailing that too many performers display to say, “I’m working here!”
Fischer, who is barely 25, took first prize at the International Yehudi Menuhin Violin Competition when she was 12, and she’s also adept as a pianist (she’ll be performing both the Glazunov violin concerto and the Grieg piano concerto in an upcoming concert). She has a fresh, thoroughly affecting sound that’s a welcome antidote to the glut of sound-alike fiddlers that  swarmed the concert stage in the past couple of decades.

Her recording of Bach’s solo Sonatas and Partitas is unexpectedly convincing. You don’t expect a kid to plumb the emotional depths of these works, which Heifetz termed “the Bible.” Yet her playing invites you to forget that there’s a musician between you and the music.

This was re-proven by her performance of Bach’s Sonata No. 2 in A minor, a four-movement work with a big fugue in the middle. To present four simultaneous voices on the violin – which, with its curved bridge, can play only two strings at a time – calls both for creative writing (which Bach never lacked) and active listening. And it’s not just the fugue that asks us to imagine a broader harmonic picture than the notes provide.

From the first notes of the stately Grave that opens the work, Fischer both sang us the haunting melody and, following the intricacies of the music, drew us into the fuller-voiced fabric with sketchy inflections. In the third movement, one of the most beautiful of all six sonatas, a pulsing harmony accompanies the tune: difficult to play well, beautifully rendered.

The closing Allegro is a fireworks show, which Fischer pushed at a too-fast tempo that clouded the line of the movement. Still, her fingerwork was superb.

The program was bracketed by sonatas by Schubert and Mendelssohn. Or, in Schubert’s case, a “Sonatina,” so named by a publisher nervous of scaring off amateurs. It’s one of a set of three such pieces, all of them full-blown, four-movement sonatas. Number 2, in A minor, was helped by Fischer’s unsentimental approach. It’s as peppy a work (minor key notwithstanding) as you’d expect from this composer, and you can practically hear the lyrics of an ardent song bursting through in the affecting melodic lines.

Mendelssohn’s Sonata in F major is actually his second such, but this is a mature work sparkling with Mendelssohnian froth, especially in the crowd-pleasing Presto that finishes the work. The opening Allegro substitutes passion for profundity, and the performers approached it differently from the Schubert, adding needed touches of emotion.

Which only reinforced the impression that Fischer and Chernyavska are a Protean pair, with not only the virtuoso chops to play anything, but keen enough insights into what they play to bring out the spirit of each individual work.

Speaking of Heifetz: As Fischer dug into the opening of the encore, Tchaikovsky’s well-work “Melodie,” she sounded uncannily like that violinist on his mid-’40s Decca recording. I’m convinced she play anything and make it sound as if it always was meant to sound that way. All the more reason to celebrate this amazing performer.

Metroland Magazine, 12 April 2007

Julia Fischer, violinist, and Milana Chernyavska, pianist
Union College Memorial Chapel
April 29, 2009

I HEARD VIOLINIST Julia Fischer play one wrong note – and only one – during her recital last week at Union College’s Memorial Chapel. It was during a busy section of Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 1, and it was a small and unremarkable moment. Nevertheless, it should suffice to satisfy George Bernard Shaw’s advice to the young Jascha Heifetz, in 1920, that he should play one wrong note every night before going to bed to appease a jealous god.

Fischer’s playing is similarly faultless. She is daunted by no technical difficulty; her interpretive depth – she’s only 26! – is similarly astonishing. Chief among the many recordings she has issued is a version of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas, the most interpretively forbidding works in the repertory, that displays a sense of heartbreak and nuance far beyond her years.

For her third Union College Concert Series appearance, with her equally amazing pianist Milana Chernyavska, Fischer performed four sonatas that complemented one another beautifully.

Prokofiev’s classical-era roots resonated nicely with the Mozart and Beethoven sonatas flanking his piece; Bohuslav Martinů’s Sonata No. 3, which concluded the concert, is like the Prokofiev on steroids.

The opening strains of Mozart’s Sonata in C Major, K. 296, set the tone for the piece as a whole: the piano is busy, trilling and turning notes as it cascades down a series of triad inversions. The violin doubles the sequence without the filigree, but the piano leads the way, leaving the fiddle a less-than-busy partner.

Oh, but the piece drips with charm, Mozart at his sunniest, and Chernyavska displayed the fleetness of touch to enrich that radiance.

Classical first-movement form presents and repeats an exposition, stating the themes, which then get a brief development. The subsequent recapitulation essentially repeats the exposition, but here’s where Fischer and Chernyavska proved their interpretive mettle: Even in a piece as relatively uncomplicated as this Mozart sonata, they found a different, more mature emotional center for that recap. You’d never miss I if they didn’t do it, but the journey was more satisfying for them having done so.

Likewise each recurrence of the main theme of the third movement. Per tradition, the movement is a rondo, bringing the theme back repeatedly, but each time, although the notes were the same, the feeling was altered, acknowledging the new distance we’d traveled.

Prokofiev wrote his Violin Sonata No. 1 after returning to his native Russia following many years abroad, and it echoes those earlier year, when his compositional voice was at its most percussive, while adding profound depths of introspection (selections from it were played at the composer’s funeral).

The violin’s tentative entry, following a brooding series of piano chords, suggested that here, as in the Mozart, the violinist might be playing second fiddle. As the melodic line grew busier and more gutsy, I feared that Fischer would maintain her sweet-sounding Mozart voice. But not at all. She wailed into a passage of double-stops and continued roaring, whispering, singing her way through the shifting moods that followed. In fact, her interpretive voice is so finely tuned to the work at hand that she brought out an unexpected layer of lyricism in the spiky second movement, and in the third, an andante, she found yet another plaintive, lovely tone for her part of the Schubertian byplay between violin and piano.

Beethoven’s Sonata No. 8, which opened the concert’s second half, is as much of a lighthearted romp in a Beethovenian way as was the Mozart sonata, in this case opening with a warm-up run doubled by piano and violin before they go streaking up a G Major chord, separating only as the piano chortles over the ascent and the violin responds triumphantly.

They played it fast and fleetly and full of good humor, not forgetting the joke at the end of the third movement when the players suddenly find themselves in E-flat Major and struggle to get back to the home key. The charming middle movement features a sinewy byplay between instruments as the themes ease between major and minor modes.

Bohemian composer Martinů wrote the last of his three violin sonatas in 1943, while living in the U.S., but it features folklike elements redolent of his native land. A bright piano introduction to the opening Poco allegro summons the violin to offer a characteristic dance theme peppered with answering piano commentary. The whole sonata is a study in propulsion, and this movement never stops, never even flags until it gives way to the Adagio that follows.

In terms of energy, the sonata peaks in the third-movement Scherzo: over six minutes of whirling, nonstop excitement. A game of melodic tag bounces along in 6/8 time with delightful echo sequences – and the violinist has virtuoso technical challenges throughout. A muted, contrasting (but still fiery) middle section builds like one of Bach’s solo violin allegros. But the climax of the piece is the concluding Lento. Again, the melody is wistful, plaintive, classical in its simplicity, with characteristically unexpected turns and contrasts.

It’s a virtuoso challenge, and both players – do I even have to repeat this? – were in top form. When they left the stage, to a standing ovation, there was nothing they could play that could have topped this, and they wisely left us free of encores.

Metroland Magazine, 7 May 2009

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