Prokofiev suits Sarah Chang’s intense style best at Ravinia

Mon Jul 08, 2013 at 12:15 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Violinist Sarah Chang performed music of Brahms and Prokofiev Sunday night at Ravinia.

It was a Short Night at Ravinia Sunday when Sarah Chang returned for a recital that spanned barely an hour and 15 minutes including intermission and encore.

Since making her celebrated festival debut at the age of 10 in 1991, the Philadelphia-born violinist has been back to Highland Park a dozen times as she has transitioned from astoundingly gifted prodigy to seasoned professional.

Now 32, Chang looked glamorous in the pair of form-fitting gowns she wore for each half of the program, though the performances of Brahms and Prokofiev proved more mixed.

Shortly after the debut of Prokofiev’s Flute Sonata in 1943, David Oistrakh prevailed upon the composer to make an arrangement of the work for violin. Prepared with Oistrakh’s assistance, Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata No. 2—the first to be completed, but never mind—was premiered by Oistrakh the following year and has proven even more popular in its revised form than the flute original.

Prokofiev’s edgy brilliance suits Chang’s intense style, the violinist attacking the Presto with violent bow strokes and restless, elaborate body language, at times leaning so far back, she could have been practicing for the limbo.

Yet Chang pointedly conveyed the unsettled lyricism of the opening Moderato and Andante equally well. The violinist’s relentless virtuosity missed some of the acerbic irony of the jaunty finale, though it’s hard to cavil with playing of this kind of polish, velocity and fearless technical command. Young pianist Andrew von Oeyen was left in the dust a couple times by his impulsive colleague but largely proved a worthy and capable keyboard partner.

The first half made up of Brahms was less successful. The violinist opened with Brahms’ “Sonatensatz,” his scherzo contribution to a joint sonata effort with Schumann and others written for Joseph Joachim. Chang attacked the music with daunting ferocity but the lyrical second theme and nostalgic B section would have benefited from a less tense approach and greater charm. Von Oeyen’s keyboard playing was too often on the loud side, at least as heard from the right side of the house.

The same comments apply to the ensuing performance of Brahms’ Violin Sonata No. 3 in D minor.  Chang blazed through the final movement with blistering fury, her chordal assaults almost violent in their vehemence.

But, this is Brahms, not Wieniawski. Chang’s aggressive style treated the sonata largely as a fiddle showpiece, slighting the late reflective essence of this work; rarely will one hear the Adagio played so blandly with such little feeling behind the notes. Von Oeyen was an adequate partner here, though fractionally too loud, the players at times getting out of synch.

Chang returned for an encore of Carlos Gardel’s Tango, made famous several years back from its use in the film Scent of a Woman. In this slight but fiddle-friendly unnamed arrangement, Chang finally seemed to relax, tossing off this confection with great style, humor and charisma.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Prokofiev suits Sarah Chang’s intense style best at Ravinia”

  1. Posted Jul 09, 2013 at 3:39 pm by Joseph

    Sometimes the reviewer needs to be critiqued! I was at the concert and was blown away. Chang is a formidable artist, as is her partner, Mr. von Oeyen, who deserves much more credit for the evening’s success thanks to his grounded and sensitive playing. As a pianist myself, I know how difficult it can be to play with fullness of sonority yet, at the same time, peripheral when necessary; von Oeyen did just that and kept the evening from becoming too much of a circus act. It is true that the violin was at time covered by the piano in the Sonatensatz, but this is almost always the case with the work and Brahms is mostly to blame for it. Anyway, it was a lovely evening.

  2. Posted Aug 12, 2013 at 12:30 am by Vince

    No the critic is spot on. Her bow technique is not good and not consistent with what better violinists have learned. She is getting lazy with her technique and to compensate, she just overdoes everything. Great review. Keep it up. Joseph, please be knowledgeable when you try to say anything classical music related. You would be blown away if she blew a fly off her violin so thanks, but no thanks for your thoughts. Here is your penny back.

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