Sarasate: Music for Violin and Orchestra, Volume 4 (CD review)

Fantasies on Don Giovanni and Der Freischutz. Tianwa Yang, violin; Ernest Martinez Izquierdo, Orquesta Sinfonica de Navarra. Naxos 8.572276.

Spanish composer and violinist Pablo Martín Melitón de Sarasate y Navascués (1844-1908) had a talent as big as his name. He was one of those composer-virtuosos who dominated the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, people like Mozart, Chopin, Paganini, and Liszt, who not only wrote great music but dazzled audiences with their virtuosic playing of it. I suppose the only one close to them in the twentieth century might be Sergei Rachmaninov; you get the idea. Anyway, to celebrate the music of Sarasate, Naxos embarked a few years ago on a series of discs with violinist Tianwa Yang, of which this one is number four. It contains two longer works--Fantasies on Don Giovanni and Der Freischutz--and six shorter pieces.

First up are two of the short pieces to set the stage: the Introduction et Tarantelle, Op. 43, and the Jota de San Fermin, Op. 36. These are sprightly works, with Ms. Yang showing off her dexterity and intense performing skill and the Symphony Orchestra of Navarre under Ernest Martinez Izquierdo most congenial in their support. Sarasate was solidly in the Romantic vein right up until the day he died, so expect a flow of lush melodies throughout. A jota, incidentally, according to my Random House Dictionary is "a Spanish dance in triple meter, performed by a couple and marked by complex rhythms executed with the heels and castanets."

Certainly, one must include the Introduction et Tarantelle among Sarasate's most-popular pieces, and when you hear Yang play it, you understand why. It's lilting and soaring and tuneful, with parts for both lovely slow playing and flashy fast showmanship. The jota also has enough variety and virtuosity to keep one engaged, and again Yang's playing is sensitive and alert. If there is any minor issue, it's that one almost forgets there's an orchestra playing behind her. Yet if you make yourself conscious of it, it plays along with enthusiasm.

Next, we find the centerpieces of the program: the Fantaisie sur le Don Juan de Mozart, Op. 51, and Fantaisie sur Der Freischutz de Weber, Op. 14, each about ten or twelve minutes long. Sarasate did a number of fantasies (around eight, I believe), and here we get an earlier and a later such work. The Mozart and Weber fantasies are, of course, medley pastiches, and as such some listeners may look down on them for their lack of originality. But Yang plays them with great dignity and refinement, and one cannot help admire their sheer elegance. And who can deny that Sarasate wasn't passing along great music?

To conclude the album, we get three more short pieces--the Jota de Pamplona, Op. 50, the Airs ecossais, Op. 34, the L'Esprit follet, Op. 48--and the longer (relatively speaking at eleven minutes) Le Reve, Op. 53. Of these final works, the Jota de Pamplona has a jaunty bounce, and Yang captures what seems to me a genuine Spanish flavor with her expressive playing. In Airs ecossais ("Scottish Airs") as the name implies Sarasate gives us a break from Spain and a whiff of Scottish atmosphere, with much in the way of Scottish folk tunes. Yang seems equally at home in the music as she did in the Spanish-flavored numbers. Then Yang delivers the penultimate item, Le Reve, exquisitely and even does a little showing off of her own in the closing track, L'Esprit follet ("The Will-o-the-Wisp"), which sounds as though she must have four hands and twenty digits to execute it.

Understand, as this is volume four in a series, Yang had already done a lot of Sarasate's most-popular material in earlier editions, things like the Carmen Fantasy and Zigeunerweisen. Nevertheless, a big part of the composer's music is entertaining enough to warrant a listen, and Yang's playing is so felicitous it's hard not to want to hear more. This is a delightful album in every way: good music, a good soloist, good accompaniment, and audio reproduction that is up to the task.

Producer and engineer Sean Lewis recorded this fourth volume of Sarasate's music at Baranain Concert Hall, Pamplona, Spain in November 2009, and Naxos released the disc in late 2013. I gather from these dates that Ms. Yang and the orchestra recorded all of the Sarasate music at about the same time, and Naxos released the various editions a year apart.

The violin is clearly out in front, perhaps a tad more so than one would hear a soloist in a live concert. Nevertheless, the violin has a pleasantly smooth, rounded sound that is pleasant to hear--not bright or edgy as some close-up violins can be. The orchestra appears spread out behind the soloist in a fairly resonant acoustic that provides a pleasing ambient glow for the music making. Clarity, dynamics, and frequency response are all more than adequate for the occasion and offer further satisfaction by way of easy listening.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa