12 July 2010
Li won the first prize of the Fifth Wieniawski International Youth Violin Competition when he was 11, and has given recitals and played with leading orchestras since, including the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra under Valery Gergiev and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra under Neeme Järvi.
Is that too dramatic and forceful for Beethoven's essentially lyrical Concerto? I can understand that some would find so. But I don't stick with the notion that Beethoven's VC is an "essentially lyrical" composition; like its composer, it is Janus-faced: heroic/dramatic AND lyrical. I love the raging energy brought to it by Järvi.
And Jansen? She is emphatically NOT the meek and demure fiddler that some of the previous reviews led me to expect. What she has to say she drives home with plenty of authority and fire, always beautiful tone, and a remarkable attention to Beethoven's minuscule details of articulation: try for instance her staccato playing between 11:12 and 11:36 in the first movement. I don't think I've ever heard such a precise rendition of what Beethoven wrote. And what's that thing with a purported contradiction between her use of vibrato and the orchestra's vibrato-less playing? When she uses it her vibrato is never obtrusive, and then - listen again, and tell me if, at 10:35 and again at 11:52 in the first movement, she is using vibrato? She's not, and there is no "contradiction".
My short take: if you want your music to push you around, this Beethoven isn't it. If you are willing to step into the circle, stand by Ms. Jansen on the stage as she plays, and let the notes rise up inside you, you will marvel at the Beethoven. In either case, the Britten should just tear you up.
A longer account:
The wonder of music is that we can not only take it in differently, as we do novels and paintings, but that performers can reveal it to us from different directions. I grew up with Jascha Heifetz' recordings of everything violin. I managed classical music stations in Boston and New York City for a dozen years. And the musical presentation I respond to has evolved. Though I'm twice her age, Janine Jansen's interpretations are immensely satisfying for me.
Heifetz was of that generation which hurled the music at you. The performer was a god and you were commanded "Hear!" and "Feel that!" As a young man, all in love with minor keys and outer drama, I loved it, and still do. Jansen's is a different approach. She's from a family of musicians. This is the family business, and like old J.S. Bach, she just pulls it up from her roots.
I first recognized her approach when she did the great Schubert C major Quintet with the group Spectrum Concerts Berlin. (You can find her on many of their Naxos recordings doing wonderful chamber music.) As an adviser to Spectrum I sat in on the rehearsals and thought that they were rather tentative. Then in the splendid thousand seat in-the-round chamber hall of Berlin's Philharmonie I found that I was being invited into a circle of friends, musicians all of us, who had gathered to open up something wonderful that our dear Franz had left behind for us. There were no imperatives -- Hear! Feel! Who needed them? Rather we were all listening from a personal depth. There was no effort to tell us what to think and feel, just an exploration that was so fine, so appreciative, that I felt like I had been Schubert's friend. It was a very powerful experience.
Similarly, this Beethoven concerto is not about how the piece can overwhelm us, but about the genius of Beethoven in putting his talent and his life into it. It's a meditative interpretation, even, with no effort at effects, just a constant surface tension beneath which are genuine depths. If you can really sit and listen in, you will find layers of shellac stripped away, so to speak.
The Britten concerto is a work of great introspection already, written at a truly ghastly moment in modern civilization. Britten, a pacifist, was living in the USA in 1940 while Hitler was preparing to crush the mainland of Europe. The scars of the Spanish Civil War were fresh, and Jansen has picked up on that background. The concerto is wonderfully free and imaginative, reflective and passionately engaged. I feel it as a great English follow-through on the line of musical creation pioneered by Mahler, in which the deep sentiment of Elgar is further refined in grief. And yet this was when Britten was forming his life partnership with Peter Pears, so that there are private hopes and joys involved here, too. Jansen and the orchestra share a real masterpiece with us, and the further you can open yourself to it, the more its tender love and tragedy will move you.
We are blessed with many fine violinists, on stage and in their recordings. Though her label has to promote a certain aura of the diva, Janine Jansen is not really about that. She is a great musician, both young and mature, who treats her audience as fellow musicians, exploring together just what it means to be human. She can do fireworks, easily, but when she does, it always really means something.
While this is certainly true, it is only a part of his musical personality, his extraordinary art and the wide range of his interpretations. His repertory extends far beyond the works of Bach and his style and playing are as fascinating as ever. Happy may be those who had the chance to hear Milstein on stage in his concerts. They were witnesses of intensity and mastership, indelible musical experiences.