Yang’s Dazzling Prokofiev

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PROKOFIEV: Violin Concerti Nos. 1 & 2. Solo Violin sonata in D / Tianwa Yang, vln; ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orch.; Jun Markl, cond / Naxos 8.574107

I wanted to review this recording because I was so deeply impressed by Tianwa Yang’s recording of the Ysaÿe Violin Sonatas, performance which I considered peerless until Maxim Brilinsky’s recording came out on Hänssler Classic (I now have both of them in my collection). To this point, my gold standard in these concerti have been Jascha Heifetz in No. 2 and Vadim Gluzman (on Bis) in both of them.

Interestingly, Yang’s performances are considerably longer in the first and third movements of both concerti but shorter in the second movements, even in the Concerto No. 2 where the second movement is marked “Andante assai.” But there are other differences in their recordings as well. Gluzman plays with a very light, bright tone, very close to straight tone, and his recording is absolutely swimming in reverb (something that Bis seems addicted to, although Naxos has also been brought to task for such sound in some of my other reviews). The less “mushy” aural perspective of Yang’s recording thus gives not only a richer sound to her violin, which I like very much, but also more “bite” in the fast passages, and despite the slower tempi conductor Jun Markl does not let the grass grow under his feet (or on his baton). As a result, there is both vigor and sweetness in her sound as needed for the various changes of tempo, volume and mood, and I should also add that the cleaner, closer sound pays dividends in one’s hearing the orchestral parts clearly.

Judging her solely by this disc, Yang seems to be the heir apparent to Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, who I believe was the greatest violinist of the latter decades of the 20th century. Nadja is still playing occasionally, and teaching, but she has fallen off the radar of recording companies and apparently neither she nor her manager care to pursue recordings on smaller labels, which is a shame. Nadja recorded several concerti during her career but only a handful of violin sonatas, mostly in live performance with her wonderful piano partner, Anne Marie McDermott; I saw then perform live in the early 2000s and they were absolutely spectacular together.

Of course I haven’t heard Yang play live, but these performances are nothing short of mesmerizing. The music sparkles in the light like glittering diamonds, and she takes nary a wrong step musically in these performances. Listen particularly to the first concerto’s second movement, and tell me if you’ve ever heard it played better. I can’t even imagine it being played better. As good as Gluzman was, Yang outdoes him in both richness of tone and rhythmic vigor. Her playing is so good that it reminded me of Michael Rabin’s landmark recording of the Paganini Caprices.

In fact, this recording is so good that after the halfway mark in the second movement of the first concerto I stopped listening critically and just sat back and enjoyed it as any other listener would. Yang’s combination of sweetness and glittering steel will absolutely bowl you over; at least, it did me.

The second concerto has a mysterious feeling to the slow portions which reminded me of Heifetz’ first recording, made in the 1930s with Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony. (He rerecorded it more than 20 years later with Charles Munch and the same orchestra.) The difference is that Markl’s phrasing is tighter and a bit less relaxed than Koussevitzky’s, so in a way it’s almost like a hybrid of Heifetz’ two conductors. One thing I found interesting is that although Yang plays with great feeling, she just misses the greater color that Heifetz was able to elicit from his instrument in the 1935 recording—but then again, so do all other violinists, so I won’t hold it against her. Let’s just say that Heifetz’ early performance was very subjective whereas Yang, like most modern violinists, is more objective. But this is splitting hairs. Taken on its own merits, it’s as fine a performance as the first concerto.

Yang also tears through the solo violin sonata with so much passion, you’d think it was written expressly for her. Perhaps a bit more surfacy in the first movement than her readings of the concerti, but then again, this is technically brilliant and not necessarily introspective music. She clearly has a handle on the emotions of the second movement.

All in all, a major achievement for this young, quite serious violinist. I’d love to hear her tackle some more modern pieces in the future…I think she had more than enough talent to make them communicate to her listeners.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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