Yossif Ivanov, violin; Pinchas Steinberg conducts Royal Flemish Philharmonic

Naive Ambroisie

Yossif Ivanov, born in Belgium to a musical family with roots in Bulgaria and winner of a flock of international violin competitions before he was 20, confirms his high promise with performances of two of the most difficult concertos in the modern repertoire. No more than 22 when he recorded these masterworks by Bartok and Shostakovich last July, he shows not only the requisite technique but also an astonishing musicality, presaging an early maturity. His tone is so incredibly beautiful, one must go back to an earlier generation of violinists for comparison. (Ivanov studied in fact with Igor and Valery Oistrakh, and regards David Oistrakh, Igor’s father, as a “god” of the violin). He also has the ability to accommodate changes in bowing position, meter, texture and dynamics seamlessly within the musical line.

That last-mentioned trait is absolutely vital when playing Bela Bartok’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in B Minor. From the opening measures in which the violin enters quietly over softly strummed chords played by the harps, Bartok puts the violin through its paces. At times, when it isn’t playing long, soulful melodies, it sounds almost like a percussive instrument. More often, it plays short chromatic passages with a pronounced rise and fall, with stunning changes in texture and rhythm. There is a sorrowful mood here, calling forth from Ivanov a decided vocal quality that hearkens back to an earlier era of violin artistry. The richly colored second melody goes through all 12 tones of the chromatic scale (though for my money it is a lot more attractive that the “Serialists” would have it), and then we have a fiendish cadenza built on quartertones, all of which Ivanov takes with remarkably deceptive ease.

And that, mind you, is just the opening movement. The slow movement, Andante tranquillo, begins tranquilly (just like the man said), but later pits the violin against more stirring music from the orchestra, including cymbal crashes. Ivanov has a grand time with the songlike melody which the composer puts through six imaginative variations. The finale, steeped in Hungarian folk elements, ends quietly where the opening began, stressing the work’s highly symmetrical cyclic form.

Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, Op. 77 again casts the soloist in close partnership with the orchestra, which is used more sparingly than would be the case in a symphony, but highly effectively. In four movements, it begins in moderate time with a highly poetic Nocturne, sorrowful but pensive, becoming more urgent and dissonant in the middle section before ending quietly, with an ethereal texture in the violin that makes a remarkable effect in this performance. The exuberant Scherzo takes soloist and orchestra on a swirling, tension-filled ride with traces of the macabre. The third and fourth movements, a dreamy Passacaglia and a demonic Burlesque, decidedly parallel the first two in terms of contrast. A stunning cadenza in the former leads to the abandoned frenzy of the finale, like a circus or a fair fueled by 100 proof vodka and requiring very quick, tricky fingering of the soloist.

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