Fiddlers, Fiddlers, Fiddlers

We seem to be awash in gifted young violinists, none of whom fits the “soulless virtuoso” description operative, justifiedly or not, for many fiddling phenoms only a decade ago. The so-called New Romanticism is as tangibly manifest among performers these days as among composers.

The youngest of the current crop is Japanese-born Midori (that’s all the name she goes by), 15 years old when she recorded Paganini’s D-major Concerto in 1987 (Philips 420 943) and already a veteran of five years on the concert stage. Of course she has phenomenal technical equipment and, it would seem, a big, luscious tone that can also bite into a phrase.

Furthermore, Midori plays the endearing old bag of pyrotechnical cliches with immense spiritedness and humor, qualities in which she is seconded by Leonard Slatkin, who, leading the London Symphony, pays far more attention to rhythmic and textural detail than is customary, giving the lie to the accepted critical opinion that it is among the truly expendable concerto accompaniments. He shows the lengthy introduction in all its blissfully Rossinian charm.

A distinguished, satisfying collaboration, which extends as well to the sweetly sentimental violin showpieces that round out the program: Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade melancolique” and “Valse-Scherzo,” which Midori projects in luscious lyric arches.


Joshua Bell was 19 last year when he made his first concerto recording, pairing the Mendelssohn E-minor and Bruch G-minor Concertos (London 421 145). It’s comparison-shopping time again, but one’s heart (this listener’s and, arguably, Bell’s) isn’t really in it.

Bell’s approach to his instrument is fleet, pleasingly light in tone and intelligent, but it takes nothing less than an artist of Heifetz-like originality to make one take notice of this music--at home, anyway. And even then we have a right to demand accompaniment more characterful than that provided by Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. More conclusive examples of this highly regarded violinist’s work will undoubtedly appear in the near future.

From its eerily murmurous opening measures, one perceives that the young British violinist Nigel Kennedy and his equally probing partner, Simon Rattle, who conducts the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (on Angel 49717), are after something special in the Sibelius Violin Concerto, the favored Romantic vehicle of the 1980s.

And they achieve it: an interpretation of gripping dramatic strength--dark, unsettled, tensely lyrical. A modern interpretation in that the violinist abjures slides and wide, universally applied vibrato, yet one that hardly stints on the grand theatrical gesture. Super stuff!


But why on earth did Angel choose as the concerto’s CD-mate the Rattle-CBSO Sibelius Fifth Symphony when the same conductor had, for the same label, given us his similar interpretation--with the Philharmonia Orchestra--only two years ago? Not even a Karajan is granted biennial updatings.

The Israeli violinist Miriam Fried has long made a speciality of the Sibelius Concerto, and a recording of her big, fiercely dramatic interpretation was long overdue. Its realization (on Finlandia 360) is, alas, disappointing, with conductor Okko Kamu the culprit: a weak-willed companion unable to impart to his Helsinki Philharmonic players the fire that Fried brings to the solo part. The CD also adds Kamu’s sober-sided readings of Sibelius’ “Karelia” Suite (yawn) and “Finlandia” (groan).

A less intense, smaller-scaled and utterly winning approach to the Sibelius Concerto is taken in a budget-priced CD reissue (RCA Victrola 7730) featuring the then-20-year-old Dylana Jenson, in perfect harmony for her lovely, unaffected and sweet-toned reading with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. And she is equally persuasive in a lithe, unobtrusively virtuosic reading of Saint-Saens Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso.

West Germany’s entry in the current international fiddle-off is 23-year-old Frank Peter Zimmermann, who abjures the virtuoso route with a Mozart sonata program, the first in a series, comprising the great sonatas K. 379 and K. 454 and the less interesting K. 526 (Angel 49626). His partner is pianist Alexander Longquich, also German and five years his senior.

Zimmermann plays with a solid, silken tone and a tad more vibrato than this music requires. The interpretations by both artists are smooth and flowing to a fault. To experience fully the dashing delights of these scores, turn rather to Itzhak Perlman and Daniel Barenboim on the Deutsche Grammophon label.

Note: RCA is about to release first recordings by its hot young American violinist, Joseph Swensen. Word on these in a future On the Record.