Review: Julia Fischer's bestselling Bach live if not always alive
If you believe the divinations of British music commentator Norman Lebrecht, the venerable London-based record label Decca may be no more by next week. Perhaps, but the patient certainly looked healthy this week when the label’s brightest new stars were in Southern California.
Tuesday night, soprano Danielle de Niese dazzled at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica. Then Wednesday, violinist Julia Fischer arrived at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields to play the two Bach concertos they’ve just recorded together. Fischer is already the darling of the download crowd. Released last month on iTunes, that Bach recording was the bestselling classical debut in the site's history. The physical disc followed suit, going straight to the top of the Billboard charts.
Fischer, who is in her mid-20s, is almost the opposite of the perky De Niese. She is a formal, severe artist, evidently uneasy with being marketed as yet another fetching young violinist. Her publicity shots for the Bach CD, even with shoes off, portray her as stiff and standoffish. She seldom smiles on camera or onstage.
Fischer’s sense of purpose, which can be felt in every note she plays, obviously overrules any sense of humor when it comes to the great masters. That may be what has most helped this German violinist stand out from her flashy competition. Before signing with Decca, she recorded a good-sized chunk of the standard violin repertory –- including Tchaikovsky, Mozart and Brahms concertos –- for the small Dutch label PentaTone. She became a full professor in Frankfurt, Germany, in her early 20s, an extraordinary accomplishment in authoritarian German academia. In 2007, she was named Gramophone magazine’s youngest-ever artist of the year.
It is hardly news that Fischer plays extremely well. Her intonation Wednesday was exact, with each phrase excellently considered and controlled. She made a vague and awkward attempt to dress provocatively, but she still came off as a strictly proper musician with a mission to get things exactly right.
Fischer was listed on the program as director as well as soloist of the small string ensemble. She bookended Bach’s two violin concertos with two major mid-20th century British string orchestral works: Benjamin Britten’s "Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge" and William Walton’s "Sonata for Strings." For these she sat as first violinist.
She didn’t physically conduct. The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, which was formed by Neville Marriner in 1959 to make recordings, has a long history of playing without a conductor, and its ensemble work Wednesday was stunning. Still, there was no mistaking that Fischer on this occasion ran the show.
She paid some attention to period practice notions, especially in maintaining a minimal amount of vibrato, but that almost seemed as though it was also a way to keep emotion out of her sound. The strings accompanied her likewise. A harpsichord –- tarted up in powder blue –- stood at the rear of the band, and it might have produced a welcome bit of sonic color. But apart from a tinkle or two that got through the strings in the slow movements, the instrument appeared to be there only for the pleasure of the players.
Mainly, what we got was flawless Bach, but also a Bach that lacked a sense of freedom, spontaneity or, heaven forbid, fun. I’ve found this lack also in Fischer's tightly wound recordings of standard repertory, which are admirable but bland.
But the Britten and Walton had a different feel. Britten’s "Variations" is an early work, a young man trying to do everything, and Fischer equaled that ambition. Taking their cue from Fischer, the strings sounded starkly German, with bold black-and-white contrasts, and the effect was brilliant.
Walton’s "Sonata" was just as bold, but unfortunately too much probing in this score can make it seem ponderous. The work belongs to this ensemble; it was written at the request of Marriner, who convinced Walton to adapt his 1945 string quartet for string orchestra. But it may also be best left on the other side of the Atlantic.
The encore was a movement from an early Mozart divertimento (K. 138), and it was the life of the party.
-- Mark Swed
Photo: Julia Fischer with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields at Segerstrom Concert Hall. Credit: Christine Cotter / Los Angeles Times