DISCS / Double Play: Just like the real thing: Edward Seckerson and Stephen Johnson on young soloists

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The Independent Culture
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto; Brahms: Hungarian Dances - Chang, LSO / Sir Colin Davis (EMI CDC 7 54753 2)

SARAH CHANG is a natural - corny but true. And it's frightening. Here she is, age 11, armed only with a three-quarter-size violin, singing the Tchaikovsky her way - the shapely rubatos, the instinctive way she vocalises the second subject, her sound sexier than she can possibly know. One or two details momentarily betray the child taking delight in her own ideas (and they always sound like her ideas). But mostly she is blissfully unspoiled and unaffected.

She knows about creating atmosphere with space in the first-movement cadenza. She doesn't over-colour the slow movement: purity and truth of line already count for more. And in the finale she cleanly picks off that notorious sequence of harmonics as if tip-toeing through some winter wonderland. With instincts like these, she can only outgrow expectations as quickly as she does instruments. ES

YEHUDI MENUHIN rated the then 10-year-old Sarah Chang 'the most wonderful, the most perfect, the most ideal violinist I have ever heard'. I'm staggered. Did he really mean that he heard things in her as heartfelt and mature as in Oistrakh, Heifetz, Milstein, Neveu, or his teacher Enesco?

Agreed, she's more than technically super-accomplished. In the Hungarian Dances and in the Slavic dance figures that saturate the Tchaikovsky her sense of style and panache is almost eerie. But when it comes to the expressive core, I find this 'ideal' playing disturbingly hollow. It reminds me of one of those frightening children who can imitate adult conversations so cleverly that it takes a while to realise that they have no real idea what they are talking about.

The prodigy industry is merciless; for every lasting success there are heaps of human wreckage - young people pushed too hard, or simply not allowed to grow up properly. I wish Sarah Chang plenty of luck - she has an enormous talent - but musically speaking, I'll be interested to hear what she's doing in about 10 years' time. SJ

Berkeley: Clarinet Concerto; 'Pere du Doux Repos . . .'; Flighting - Johnson, Herford, Northern Sinfonia / Sian Edwards (ASV CD Single DCB 1101)

A CLARINET is born in the opening bars of Michael Berkeley's concerto. And it shall not go quietly into the world. From fractured timpani rhythms, like the breaking of some ancient chrysalis, the solo voice emerges, tentative stutterings building to a primal scream. Berkeley's act of creation and survival fast-forwards us through some of the toughest and flintiest music I have yet heard from him.

The interaction with other woodwind voices is especially intense: even the two orchestral clarinets are hostile. At the still, ruminating centre of the piece an alto flute briefly, movingly, extends the hand of harmony. I should like to have heard more of this poetic alliance. But the magic is in the rarity.

After the concerto, 'Pere du Doux Repos . . .' brings on a solitary baritone (the excellent Henry Herford) to reveal a composer who truly writes vocally for the voice, while the clarinet, alone at last for Flighting, finds solace in one of Emma Johnson's most breathtaking pianissimos. ES

THE trend over the last two decades has been away from thorny, provocative modernism to listener-friendliness. Michael Berkeley seems to have gone the other way. The style has been getting more abrasive, less familiar, the substance darker. But it's not the manner that matters; from the start the emergent Berkeley speaks with a new authority.

The Clarinet Concerto grips right from its ominous, fragmentary opening. The thinking is logical and unpredictable at the same time, the solo writing dramatic and intensely expressive. Emma Johnson has had time to get to know this work in performance, and the orchestral playing carries the same charge. I've found this a very repeatable experience all round. SJ

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