Last night the 23-year-old Chinese violinist Xiang Yu, aka Angelo, gave a brilliant duo-recital at Jordan Hall with pianist Mei Rui. Angelo is studying in NEC’s elite Artist Diploma program with Don Weilerstein, the founder/leader of the great Cleveland Quartet and one of the finest violin teachers. At the end of the concert Angelo rendered a very touching tribute to Weilerstein’s role as teacher and father figure. One marvelous outcome of the relationship was an exciting and poetic violinist who galvanized the large audience in Jordan Hall with the breadth of his musical vision and quality of sound. This must surely have been the beginning of a major career.
The program was old fashioned: The Bach Chaconne, Chausson’s Poème, a virtuoso firecracker by Sarasate, his Habanera, and the Beethoven Kreutzer Sonata. The elegiac Poème of Chausson, a work which requires total control of all the sound colors and expression the instrument can command, might usefully summarize our impression of Angelo’s qualities. He brought to the work a total originality and a palette of colours that I have rarely heard on the instrument. The very opening solo, known by the great virtuosi of the past and present as one of the most nerve-wracking in the repertoire because of its instant demand to have total bow control without any ameliorating “warm-up,” caused even the great Heifetz to flutter his bow on the long sustained opening note. Angelo evinced not just complete control of his instrument, but also a depth of understanding of the work that allowed him to produce intense musical expression and passion. The opening solo, so simple and yet so demanding, bound us in a deeply emotional spell.
Beethoven’s Sonata in A Major No. 9 op. 479 (Kreutzer) demands and received a collaboration of equals. Indeed, the title page of the first edition describes it as a “Sonata for Piano-forte with a Violin obligato.” Pianist Mei Rui was a major contributor to the evening and played with deeply felt and intense musicality in this most concertante of all Beethoven’s violin sonatas. The performers really listened to one another—each knowing when to yield and when to assert. Their pianissimos were ravishing. Angelo’s bow arm in particular was capable of the steadiest diminuendi I have ever heard. The two young artists clearly enjoyed their partnership and brought their own take into one of the best known of works in the repertoire, though I would like to hear them play this piece again in a few years with a bit more wildness.
There were also two opportunities to hear solo Bach. The great Chaconne was the remarkably played opener. Not for Angelo is the new thinking of the authentic instrument school of Monica Huggett or Rachel Podger; rather, this was romantic Bach with every note felt and expressed but with structural and architectural bones. His uncanny ability to blend open strings with fingered one’s was masterful, but just one of his many refinements of technique.
The second Bach was the evening’s encore— that amazing slow movement of the A Minor Sonata where the violin accompanies itself. According to accounts, the great Sándor Végh gave a masterclass on this movement, and after 30 minutes or so of discussion, direction, criticism and demonstration, Végh said to his young victim, “See, you play it like this. Two voices different. So now play it for a lifetime and it will come.” Well, Angelo already understood the work and gave a highly charged spiritual reading.
Even against the expectation deriving from the very high quality of NEC talent these days, this was much more than a student recital. By the sheer quality and force of his sound and ideas Angelo emerged as an artist with a distinct voice and an extraordinary ability to engage.