IN: Reviews

Unwarranted Humility from Yu


Xian Yu in file photo
Xian Yu in file photo

Violinist Xiang Yu might wish to do something to placate the weather gods. His New England Conservatory Artist Diploma recital, (with pianist Dina Vainshtein) originally scheduled for January, was postponed because of a blizzard. Wednesday night’s event brought near monsoon conditions, and a smaller, weather resistant fan base to Jordan Hall. Needing no warming up himself, Yu impressed the audience from the start with playing beyond his years.

The two opened with the Vitali Chaconne (listed in the program as Vivaldi). It seems the real challenge to this piece (and any chaconne?) is striking the right balances between the static and dynamic, creating an arch and musical flow while preserving a steady, linear drive, but one that avoids monotony. No small task. Yu is master of this piece. His playing was steely smooth, constantly and mysteriously rhythmic without any metronomic quality. And with Vainshtein’s playing, too, the Chaconne flowed, floated, and yet was richly grounded—water, air, earth at one, you might say. Were we transported downstream or witnessing from the banks the river of sound flow past? In any case, we were in a different place after.

The greatest contrast in the work was not from any development from projection of a simple line to showy pyrotechnics—not Yu’s style—but with the occasional switching of roles, when Yu so politely supported Vainshtein in those rare occurrences when she had the melodic line in this piece. Throughout, though, this was symphonic in presentation, less about a violin and piano, more about moving waves of sound.

With the Franck Sonata, Yu gave us some old-fashioned lilt at the edge of phrases. Again, there was almost beat-less playing that was perfectly and paradoxically rhythmic. Some violinists, it seems, let the pianist provide a rhythmic foundation, playing freely around that. Cheating and lazy. Not so with Yu. Both players here had rhythm at their core, so rhythm could never get in the way of things.

Yu’s economy of motion focused our attention on his amazing bowing. He looks very much like a young Charles Bronson, really, with a similar reserved and hidden musculature. And when he did move more, he had the balance of a poised boxer, and he also moved like Fred Astaire.

You might have thought the piano a tad over-pedaled in the Franck Sonata in A Major (but I doubt Yu did). Rich pedaling might have been in service to the duo’s richer textured (again, more symphonic) interpretation of the work. Big piano playing never covered Yu’s projecting violin. Vainshtein’s balance during the hand-crossing of the third, slow, movement was a pleasure to watch, and a beautiful, breath-taking ending from the duo creating the ideal spot of departure for the last movement. It was then much fun to hear the dialogue and musical flow of that great tune. A super-brisk pace, and the building of intensity, taking flight, just held in gravitational check. If you expected the pace to let up at end, to allow some expansion of phrasing, you would have been wrong. There was smooth landing, but no brakes.

Post-intermission brought the briefest of introductions from Yu for Ma Sicong’s “Nostalgia” from Inner Mongolian Suite (Suiyuan Suite), op. 9. Yu, also from Inner Mongolia, noted that he had not been home in 12 years. He added that the Schubert to follow, the Fantasy for Violin and Piano in C major, D 934, is “most difficult…I hope we’ll survive it.”

The Sicong was soulful, “folk” sounding, full of Debussy-like chromaticism, and little violin slides—the latter part a brief study in 3rds and 6ths—and over before you knew it. A sweet work of grace and restraint, so suitable for Yu (and me).

What might Schubert have been thinking when writing the piano part for his Fantasy for Violin and Piano in C major, D 934? While the violin part may present challenges (not so much for Yu), the piano part is relentless in the outer movements, particularly in the set of variations, 3rd movement. Kudos to Vainshtein for making it all sound delicate and charming, in an appropriately gypsy sort of way. Likewise from Yu.

The Schubert turned out to be a good piece to encapsulate a program that began with the Vitali Chaconne. Variations on a theme (an 1821 song of Schubert’s, “Sei mir gegrüßt”) were made less static—and no escaping a presentation of this work as showpiece!—by an awareness of where everything was headed, a proud ending where the two took turns showing their chops between alternating boisterous and tender exclamations of the march theme.

The audience was humbled when Yu spoke before a short encore, with a most sincere thanks to them for coming to hear them play. He announced: “I am scared every time I come on stage…” of showing “my [considerable] “imperfections.” Which caused considerable gasping, as witnessing Yu perform is a world apart from fear. He dedicated the recital to his mother, who passed away three years ago, and offered a brief encore, one of many “songs” she had taught him, by Dvorak. Here, Yu relaxed, producing a rich “viola” sound to start the piece before turning brighter, and turning on the schmaltz, giving us his considerable mastery in service of his music.

Jim McDonald has masters degrees in arts administration and piano performance from the University of Iowa, where he studied with John Simms. He has presented chamber music for 25 years.

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  1. This was another astounding recital by Xiang Yu. Although I agree with Mr. McDonald’s very positive review, I take issue with his use of the phrase “turning on the schmaltz,” which I think connotes manipulative, exaggerated sentimentalism. The sincerity and authenticity of Xiang and his music are unquestionable – the Dvorak is a fundamentally sentimental piece, and Xiang played it simply and beautifully.

    Comment by Bob D. — May 2, 2014 at 9:12 pm

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