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CD Review

Fire & Ice

Sarah Chang, violin
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Plácido Domingo
EMI Classics 5 57220 5 DDD 60:04
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Just out of her teens, Sarah Chang shows that she has the maturity not to take "surefire" showpieces for granted. Fire & Ice (can't say I like the silly title, though, because where is the ice?) is polished and thoughtful, and Chang and Domingo can't be accused of forgetting to put in genuine excitement either.

Perhaps as a tip of the bow to one of Domingo's most popular operatic roles (and he was born in Spain to boot), the program opens with Pablo de Sarasate's Carmen Fantasy. This fantasy immediately confronts Chang with all kinds of technical difficulties, including double-stopping, harmonics, chunky pizzicato passages, and (particularly in the closing "Gypsy Dance") too many notes that must be played in too little time! Chang doesn't flinch, however, and her suave violinism ensures that the musicality remains in what sometimes sounds more like "stunt music." Domingo, in the more modest role of accompanist, finds his own opportunities to be sensitive. The same holds true for Sarasate's Zigeunerweisen, Hungarian gypsy tunes filtered through the lens of a Spanish composer. Technical virtuosity seldom sounds so innocent and smart as it does here.

Chang is at her best, however, when she is displaying her gorgeously lyrical playing. That is why the highlights of this CD, at least for me, are the "Méditation" from Massenet's opera Thaïs and the Dvořák Romance. This is music that sighs with introspective melancholy, and Chang's warmth and emotional involvement are more than willing to meet the music halfway.

Least successful are the Beethoven and the Bach. Although they are played beautifully, the performances feel generalized, and too self-consciously relaxed and relaxing in that "New Age-y" manner that crept into classical performance in the 1990s. Tzigane also needs some more dirt, particularly from the orchestra. This is one of the raunchiest works in the violin and orchestra repertoire; Chang and Domingo make it too genteel. This should be music that has its knives drawn.

This disc was recorded in the Berlin Philharmonie in June 2001. The engineering, although favoring the violin, is well balanced. Michael Jameson's booklet notes adore Chang and tell you little about the music that you didn't already know.

Copyright © 2002, Ray Tuttle