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Surprising Sarah: Brahms and Bruch
on March 7, 2010
Sarah Chang's most recent release proves to be the most appealing and enjoyable for this listener. The Bruch and Brahms concertos appear here in an infrequent coupling with the soloist teamed with Dresden's Philharmonie and Kurt Masur.
The strongest point of this entire disc that jumps immediately on the first hear is the beautiful sound of the Dresden Phil: the entire sound worlds of the strings, winds, brass, and percussion are quite homogeneous in their union with an impressive breadth of sound textures and characters. The fluidity of the pacing and variance in colors and forward vs. subdued 'lighting' is absolutely wonderful. It is unknown how much of this was specifically due Masur's direction or whether the orchestra already possessed and voiced its own 'sixth sense' in the realm of concerto accompaniment. Bravi to the ensemble and Masur.
Sarah Chang's playing for me has remained impressively consistent through all the years of her career for the overall feelings of 'solidness and loudness' that are always conveyed in whichever repertoire she performs. She is remarkable for her command of execution and again, consistent delivery of incredible violin-playing. Yehudi Menuhin was certainly on-the-mark in his oft-quoted praise of her as the 'most perfect violinist'. Chang's performances on disc and in the concert-hall are close in resembling each other: she exudes an almost pre-meditated command of the piece that she plays with such a solid 'weight' that remains so firmly adherent to the ground. This is not to say Chang's playing is sluggish, yet her overall aura has always conveyed the aural sensation of fortissimo projection and a purposeful bow that usually stays 'earthbound' on the violin's strings.
This present recording, however, deviates somewhat from the above traits of Chang's identity as a violinist. The Bruch concerto is expressed more romantically than the Brahms; she performs the Brahms, especially the finale, in more of her usual mode of 'solid-weighted violinism'.
In the Bruch, she is more fluid with her emotions and pacing with rubato and a beautiful legato line that ceases to betray any bow-changes. Vibrato is more varied in its speed and width here than in other recordings where she has frequently made one feel that she is applying a single wide vibrato to all passages like a prime coat of paint. Articulation and acrobatics with the bow are clear without any doubt to what she is intending to say musically. The Bruch is perhaps the most convincing because I found myself less conscious or aware of Chang's technical execution of the piece and more in rapport with the music and its drama.
Chang's first Brahms concerto recording also offers clear musicality of her reading of this most grand of violin works. I enjoyed the first and second movements the most where Chang's 'solid' and loud persona are most facilitative of delivering the first 35 minutes of Brahms' masterpiece. Her rapport with the Dresden unfolds naturally and Masur's pacing of the tutti's prevents the entire performance from emulating the soloist's 'thickness' of sound and expressive temperament. The collaboration is clearly presenting the work as a concerto-symphony as inherent in Brahms' scoring and architecture of his concerto.
However, there are contrasting elements of light vs shade, tranquility/serenity vs sturm/drang, amiable warmth vs searing rage and 'public vs distant' moods that do not quite find voice in Chang's performance. These components can sum to deliver a 'living' performance of the concerto that should communicate senses of mystery, romance, build-up/release of tension and musical melodrama that reflect Brahms' humility and vulnerability. The finale is a beautiful execution of virtuoso bow feats but remains flat and less giocoso such that the contrast and dramatic release from the first two movements cannot be fully realized nor enjoyed.
In sum, these performances are positive testaments to add to Chang's discography. I heard her perform the Brahms in Houston ten years ago - her overall interpretation has not changed much to the present recording, however her musical expressiveness has flowered more and makes this release enjoyable.