The classical world is saturated with superlative young violinists, so it’s actually not likely that Angelo Xiang Yu is best of all. But there cannot be many recitals more impressive, more satisfying at every turn, than the one he gave Tuesday at Walnut Hill in the Foundation fo Chinese Performing Arts festival. With pianist Jonie Qiuning Huang, Yu was just astonishingly expert: confident and poised, exciting and projecting, musical no matter how defined, with Huang in as perfect synch as one can be—incredibly telepathic, they seldom needed to look at each other—flying all over her keyboard with zero error. (And she has not even been his regular partner in the past.)
What might violin musicality mean besides a certain elegance and brio informed by impeccable technique? With Yu it would include lovingly, surprisingly chameleonic capacities. The Mozart Sonata for Piano and Violin K. 301 (1778, the composer 22) could have been Wolferl showing off in the parlor with older sis Nannerl, so idiomatic, relaxed, happy, inflected, utterly con spirito was it. (To pinch myself now, I went to YouTube to listen to Hahn and Zhu: dead, comparatively dead anyway, in rather porcelain propriety. This gives a sense of Yu.)
Was everything going to be so perfected and so lively? If the Beethoven Sonata No. 7 for Piano and Violin (Op. 30 no. 2, from 1802, the composer 32) started small and ornery at Haydn scale, it quickly grew, through wiry trickiness and nutso rhythms, into the more galumphing style we enjoy, Beethoven showing he could outdo Papa pretty much as he wished. Joking abounds in the Scherzo and Finale, interrupted by rug-pulling seriousness, with big gestures in minor-key drones, and romps of the sort unfortunately deployed behind Saturday morning cartoons 150 years later.
(Plug digression: There are a great many fine recordings of these sonatas, but my recent go-to has been the Cypres set by fortepianist Cyril Huve and violinist Jorja Fleezanis, chiefly for the latter’s muscular, no-nonsense take, until I recently met absolutely electrifying readings by local violinist Susanna Ogata and fortepianist Ian Watson on Coro. And now this exemplar from Yu and Huang. You could do some lengthy graduate seminars studying the Beethoven craft and understanding of those three duos.)
We forget sometimes how beautiful Stravinsky can be, at Walnut Hill in his Suite Italienne (~1933 from earlier work, the composer early 50s). After the sweet opening, the Seranata, Tarantella, and Gavotta featured rippled playing by both that was positively hair-raising, and full of effects. The two musicians cornered as one, all the way through to a stupendous finale. Ravel’s showy rhapsody Tzigane (1924, the composer 49) is all craziness, from the long buzzy opening violin solo to more specifically insect-ish effects swarming the rarefied-air treble. The program encore, Massenet’s religioso entr’acte “Meditation” from Thais (1894, the composer 51), was dedicated to presenter Cathy Chan, and brought all of the tones back to the traditional, conjuring the luscious haze of some golden age, as all hotshot violinists are able to do these days; but even here I must report that Yu’s offering was special in inflection and shape and dramatic points.
In Yu’s hands his instrument seems to glow and change with myriad lovely, and less lovely, colors. It goes undescribed in his bio and notes, and one thing some aficionados might remark is that he does not consistently butter his tone to achieve today’s glossy, often creamy, virtuoso polish. Yu’s violinism tends to darker, woody viola tones; moreover he regularly, or perhaps it’s irregularly, features a pleasingly sour edge, like someone who prefers drinks with bitters. Not close to being out of tune, just a broad hoedown fiddle sound, as he deems it appropriate. Also old-telephone squawks. I wonder if he will teach others at some point. Huang’s faultless keyboard work calls for no other adjectives than to note that it was exactly quiet, and otherwise ideally gauged as accompaniment, whether or not she was using the soft pedal. I mention this only because it’s hard to achieve.
Yu and Huang should do summer touring at rock, pop, folk, country, and/or jazz festivals, along with, say, Anderson and Roe. That would create some new classical audiences. Seriously, do not miss these two if the opportunity presents.