Joo Yeon Sir: Chaconnes, Divertimento and Rhapsodies
Since Joo Yeon Sir’s debut album, ‘Suites and Fantasies’ (9/17), concluded with Igor Frolov’s concert fantasia on Porgy and Bess, it’s rather fun that this sympathetically titled follow-up, which celebrates composer-violinist friendships, bows out with Heifetz’s frothily virtuoso arrangement of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s concert fantasy on Il barbiere di Siviglia.
Heifetz and fellow Jew Castelnuovo-Tedesco first met in 1918, and in 1939 it was Heifetz who with Toscanini helped Castelnuovo-Tedesco and his family win emigration rights to America. Years later, in 1972, it was an encore by Castelnuovo-Tedesco with which Heifetz closed his last public concert. So on all fronts it would be a little unfair to compare Yoo Jeon Sir’s take on Il barbiere with Heifetz’s own wittily audacious performance (Naxos). However, hers does stand up very well beside Francesco Dego’s 2018 effort (DG, 1/19). A wider colouristic palette, for starters. Plus, while overall she’s intent on perfection, she does have moments where she’s taking things enjoyably further towards the precipice.
Equally, Pancho Vladigerov’s Bulgarian Rhapsody Vardar has plenty of pep, and Bartok’s Rhapsody No 1 – written for the Hungarian-born violinist Joseph Szigeti – doesn’t lack on that front, even while the overall approach is one of sweetness and delicacy; and I love the filigreed, gossamer-weight nimbleness brought by both Sir and pianist Irina Andrievsky to the interludes Stravinsky wrote for his friend Samuel Dushkin on Tchaikovsky’s The Fairy’s Kiss.
To end with the album’s first two numbers, while modern ears are fairly acclimatised to piano-accompanied versions of the Chaconne in G minor once attributed to Tomaso Vitali, the same can’t be said for Mendelssohn’s piano accompaniment to Bach’s D minor Chaconne, written in 1840 for Ferdinand David. Still, whether you view it as an interesting historical curiosity or an aberration, you can’t fail to be impressed by the sensitivity and restraint – indeed, the Mendelssohnian chamber lightness – with which Andrievsky sets to her task here. Add Sir’s own gentle purity, and the pair manage to realise the highest points of the work’s emotional architecture without ever overdoing things. So, while the album’s opening may feel like the most difficult piece for 21st-century sensibilities to get on board with, it’s probably also the disc’s greatest achievement.