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Fanfare US on Melodies 5 stars

May 4, 2008

Robert Maxham

MELODIES • Chen Yi (vn); Lars Hannibal (gtr) • OUR 6.220602 (SACD: 62:08)

MASSENET Thaïs: Méditation. KREISLER Liebesleid. Schön Rosmarin. HANDEL Xerxes: Largo. Violin Sonata in b: Larghetto. SCHUBERT Ave Maria. MOZART Ave verum corpus. PARADIES (arr. Dushkin) Sicilienne. LALO Symphonie espagnole: Andante. BIZET Carmen: Entr'acte. GRIEG Cattle Call. Lullaby. GLUCK Dance of the Blessed Spirits and Air. PAGANINI Cantabile. SATIE 3 Gymnopédies

Guitarist Lars Hannibal adapted all the pieces in this program with violinist Tina Chen Yi for violin and guitar—with the exception of Paganini's Cantabile, originally conceived for that combination of instruments. But whatever the performing medium, the program continuously pours out melodies, each of which has become familiar to aficionados of the violin's salon repertoire. The program's having been recorded in Karlebo Church in Denmark may explain its reverberant atmosphere (possibly not entirely natural)—I listened in the CD format. But no amount of extra reverberation, real or artificial, could create the warmth of Chen's soaring sound on the E string in Massenet's popular Méditation (she plays a Chinese violin made by Shen Fei in 2004, which sounds suave in all registers, particularly in the highest and lowest ones).

Kreisler's Liebesleid sounds almost too richly characterized by the atmosphere the recorded sound has created (so does Schön Rosmarin, perhaps to an even more pronounced degree), but in the popular Largo from Xerxes, Hannibal's bewitching accompaniment provides a foil to Chen's understated, subtle performance. In Schubert's Ave Maria, a chestnut made popular for the violin in a ubiquitous arrangement by August Wilhelmj and Jascha Heifetz, Chen doesn't take the second statement in octaves, repeating it instead on the G string; the recorded sound makes the performance sound almost as though it had been given underwater, especially at the beginning. The same holds true, at least of the recorded sound, in Mozart's similarly religious Ave verum corpus. By the time the program has reached Paradies' Sicilienne, the similarities of the pieces' tempos will most likely have begun to take its toll on many listeners. The opening tutti of the Andante from Lalo's celebrated Symphonie espagnole demonstrates just how vibrantly Hannibal re-creates accompaniments written for other instruments or even ensembles. Here, in a part exceptionally well written for the violin, Chen makes a stunning effect together with her accompanist, playing with all the fiery Spanish flavor the work itself suggests and at the same time projecting the big personality of a concerto soloist even in the intimate surroundings she and Hannibal have chosen. Coming immediately after this reading, Chen's playing of Bizet's Entr'acte seems more restrained by the bounds of its slower tempo and cooler temperature. Handel's Larghetto, however, taps a richer interpretive vein—as may, for many listeners, Grieg's haunting Cattle Call. Gluck's Dance has become a violinistic chestnut in Fritz Kreisler's arrangement, and it's effective in Hannibal's as well, providing Chen many opportunities for heartfelt expressivity. Much of the interest in the duo's reading of Grieg's Lullaby arises from Hannibal's sensitively wrought accompaniment (seemingly both in conception and performance). Chen and Hannibal, once again, step more confidently to the fore in Paganini's Cantabile, in which they raise Paganini's soaring melody to an Italianate bel canto life, replete with violinistic touches that keep it consistently fresh despite its familiarity. The concluding Gymnopédies, creating a static though somewhat hypnotic emotional ambiance, reverts in these performances to the more reverberant, lower-voltage playing that characterizes so much of the program.

Chen indulges an occasional portamento, but the effect of her musicianship doesn't depend on such devices. Nevertheless, it's hard to listen to such a long program of similar pieces without noting that earlier violinists (the same I so often mention—Heifetz, Milstein, Stern, Francescatti, Oistrakh, Kreisler, Szigeti, and so on) would likely have given it a more striking profile overall while differentiating the pieces more distinctly. It's in programs like these that they're most sorely missed; Chen, despite her clean and expressive musicianship, doesn't dispel the sense of nostalgia. Recommended primarily to those in search of this kind of playing in this kind of program.

This article originally appeared in Issue 33:6 (July/Aug 2010) of Fanfare Magazine.

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