Chang/Karabits/RPO, Royal Festival Hall

Michael Church
Friday 22 April 2011 09:27 BST

Appearing at the Southbank on successive nights, Janine Jansen and Sarah Chang allow interesting comparisons between two virtuoso fiddlers in their early thirties, who are in every other respect as different as the sun and moon.

Jansen is a tall, commanding Dutchwoman who shapes her phrases with such subtlety that our attention is forced on every note. She was initially marketed as a sex-kitten, and her Cds were celebrated iTunes hits, but she has left all that behind in her austere aesthetic quest. Her Southbank performance of Shostakovich’s second violin concerto was a genuine revelation.

Korean-American Sarah Chang was playing virtuoso works so brilliantly at nine that Yehudi Menuhin gave her his ecstatic blessing: ‘the most wonderful, the most perfect, the most ideal violinist I have ever heard’. Since then she has struck a clever balance between the demands of showbiz and high art. She’s recorded light classics with Domingo, starred in advertising campaigns with Pete Sampras and Wynton Marsalis, and was chosen to carry the Olympic Torch in New York, but her artistry has remained first-rate.

She too received a Southbank ovation, after delivering a work she has made her own, Bruch’s ‘Violin Concerto No 1 in G minor’. But from the moment she came on as a provocative glamour-puss in a figure-hugging mauve silk ball-dress, it was clear she was trading on spectacle as well as sound. She launched into the opening movement with terrific swagger, spending her pauses with hands on hips and her violin clamped challengingly between chest and chin.

Her melodies in the Adagio were sweet, but under-projected; Jansen would have given them much more power. But by the time we reached the finale, Chang was clearly in showbiz mode. Boogying to the Gypsy rhythms, bending backwards theatrically at climaxes, stroking her tresses, constantly adjusting an errant shoulder-strap - what she gave us was a YouTube video. And when the ovation came, the strap stayed winsomely down. Her EMI recording of this work is superb: like our lovely Mr Lansley, she should listen, reflect, and engage.

No, the real hero of this concert was conductor Kirill Karabits, under whose direction Respighi’s ‘Fountains of Rome’ and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony emerged in exhilaratingly vibrant garb.

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