Like so many other world-class violinists Vilde
Frang started taking lessons very early and was invited by Mariss
Jansons to make her debut with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra
at the age of twelve. I heard her some years ago playing Prokofiev’s
second concerto and was amazed, not only by her impeccable technique
- which is something one takes for granted nowadays - but for
her innate musicality and sense of style. Her debut disc for
EMI with the Sibelius and Prokofiev’s first concerto received
glowing reviews (review
and this new disc only confirms that impression.
The programme is quite unusual. Do these composers have anything
in common? Well, in fact they have. Grieg and Strauss were both
fairly young when they composed their sonatas, Grieg was 22
and Strauss barely a year older. In both cases it is youthful,
somewhat turgid music, full of vitality and promising well for
their future. Grieg and Bartók have their folk music
background in common, clearly discernible in both their works.
Even though the link between Strauss and Bartók is weaker,
it was when Bartók heard the Budapest premiere of Also
sprach Zarathustra in 1902 that he decided to devote his
life to composing.
The Grieg sonata flows with youthful freshness in the first
movement with a Norwegian touch. The Norwegian element is far
more assertive in the down-to-earth fiddling dance of the second
movement, where Frang is tremendously assured and rhythmically
alert. The third movement is full of thematic ideas and whirls
forth with infectious flair. It’s a brilliant conclusion
to an utterly stimulating work. The third sonata, more formally
rounded, may be a greater master-piece but here, already, Grieg
very distinctly shows his mettle.
With the Bartók sonata we move to a quite different world.
Commissioned by Yehudi Menuhin and completed in March 1944 it
is one of the composer’s last works. There are dissonances
aplenty but also passages of immense beauty. The fugue is certainly
tricky but fresher and more lively than most fugues. Balm is
offered in abundance in the third movement, Melodia,
which opens with a phrase that evokes memories of the slow movement
of Brahms’ Double Concerto. Then it wanders down its own
path - and very beautiful it is alternating brittle woodwind
and rounded cello-deep melodies. The finale is the folk-dance
equivalent of the Grieg sonata’s second movement, only
even more uninhibited and unpredictable. The folk-music roots
are never far away in Bartók’s music.
The first movement of Strauss’s sonata has the same exuberance
as Grieg’s and an even more elaborate piano part. It’s
the work of a young romantic where the blood pulsates wildly.
The simplicity of the second movement is only temporary. Soon
the music storms away, only to give way for what the title of
the movement suggests: an elegant improvisatory excursion over
arpeggio chords in the piano. The sombre opening of the finale
is also a smoke-screen: this soon disperses and we are exposed
to jolly caprices as well as a broad romantic canvas, painted
with powerful brush-strokes.
Vilde Frang’s playing is overwhelming, natural, fluent
and flexible. I wouldn’t say that charm is the first word
that comes to mind when talking of Bartók’s solo
sonata but Ms Frang’s playing has that elusive quality
in whatever she approaches. Menuhin wrote in his autobiography,
quoted in the liner-notes by David Nice: ‘when I saw it
… I admit I was shaken, it seemed to me almost unplayable’
If ever Vilde Frang had similar thoughts there is not a trace
of it. I have not made any comparisons for this review, simply
because this coupling is, as far as I have been able to find
out, unavailable anywhere else. But from the very first bars
of the Grieg sonata and throughout this very well-filled disc,
there is no doubt that we are listening to a master violinist.
Michail Lifits at the piano seems to be her twin soul. With
recorded sound out of EMI’s most exalted drawer this is
a disc that goes to the top-ten-list of violin recordings. Give
us more of Vilde Frang, please, EMI!