In recent decades, the infatuation with youth and beauty has affected many industries including classical music. In fact, it seems that classical musicians must begin their studies practically while they are still breast-feeding in order to ensure any kind of career at all. Bright stars burn out quickly, however, and few Wunderkinder show signs of true artistry and sophistication.

Julia Fischer, © Kasskara.jpg
Julia Fischer,
© Kasskara.jpg

In her recent recital with Princeton University Concerts, Julia Fischer displayed not only her virtuosity on the violin, but also an incredibly mature and refined style that sets her apart from her peers. Pianist Milana Chernyavska accompanied Fischer on the piano. The program featured three sonatas, by Mozart, Debussy and Saint-Saëns, as well as Schubert’s Rondo Brillant in B Minor, Op. 70, D.895.

Fischer played every piece from memory with absolutely no mistakes. In our “age of mechanical reproduction,” recordings have raised audience expectations for live performers. Musicians, being human after all, are rarely able to duplicate on stage what they can accomplish in the studio, and fail to meet the high expectations set by the magic that happens through editing. The level of perfection with which Fischer plays, however, is truly astounding.

While many musical prodigies can play flawlessly, few perform with the same emotional depth and sophistication that Fischer did in her Thursday night concert. Pianist Lang Lang, for example, who is just a year older than Fischer, often dazzles his audience with his pyrotechnic playing. But there is little substance beneath his histrionic gestures and flamboyant style.

Fischer, in contrast, always plays with extreme sensitivity and earnestness. For example, many violinists might tend to overdo the Empfindsamer Stil (sensitive style) of the the Andante from Mozart’s Sonata in B flat major, K454. Fischer, however, played with subtlety that never border on schmaltz. Her tender facial expressions underscored her sincerity. She played the entire sonata stylishly with crystal-clear intonation, never obscuring the line with excessive vibrato.

Schubert’s Rondo Brillant rounded out the first half of the program. This grand showpiece traverses a range of contrasting emotions. Fischer’s interpretation was never overindulgent, and at times was quite reserved and introspective. She tossed off furious passagework effortlessly.

During several sections of the Schubert, the violin accompanies the piano by playing only one or two pitches for as many measures. In the più mosso, for instance, the violin plays ten measures of nearly all F sharps – of the forty notes in the violin line, thirty-seven of these are F sharps! During these passages, Fischer arched her neck crane-like towards the ceiling – an image enhanced by her simple off-white dress and sparkling silver pumps.

The second half of the concert featured two nineteenth-century French works – Debussy’s Sonata no. 1 in G minor and Saint-Saëns’s Sonata no. 1 in D Minor, Op. 75. One got the sense, perhaps, that the pianist was enjoying herself more in these works than in the Mozart and Schubert. During the Finale of the Debussy, for example, Chernyavska sounded beautiful as her hands fluttered during brief passages of close hand-crossing – a technique often more difficult than performing hand-crossings in drastically different registers. Chernyavska also sounded lovely at moments during the Saint-Saëns, undulating hypnotically in the Allegro agitato.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Fischer’s playing all evening was how effortless it seemed; she always looked poised and elegantly commanding. Only during the Allegro molto of the Saint-Saëns, the very last movement of the entire program, did Fischer show the first signs of true effort or strain. Fischer started to get a bit red in the face playing the nearly continuous string of sixteenth notes played at break-neck speed. This movement was a stunning finale to the concert. After a hearty standing ovation, Fischer treated the audience to an encore by Ernest Bloch.

One of the most unique aspects of the evening was the “musical preview” which preceded Fischer’s concert. Three Princeton University students performed Ravel’s Piano Trio in A minor an hour before Fischer took the stage. While opening acts are more common for rock concerts, this novel approach to curating an evening of classical music raises the question: “Why don’t venues do this more often?” Princeton University Concerts should be commended for introducing the “musical preview” to their programming, one of many successful efforts they have initiated to engage the community and build younger audiences.

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