The Compact Collection: Sergey Khachatryan; Maxim Vengerov; Biber 'Unam Ceylam'

The week's best CD releases

By Rob Cowan
Saturday 23 November 2013 05:04

It's been a particularly good year for memorable recordings by young violinists what with Nikolaj Znaider (RCA), Ilya Gringolts (DG) and Antal Szalai (BMC). Now Armenian-born Sergey Khachatryan's new budget-price EMI "Debut" CD testifies to thoughtful musicianship and a vibrant, evenly deployed tone. Still only in his teens Khachatryan makes imaginative chamber music of Brahms's Third Violin Sonata, more restrained than some (his pianist-sister Lusine opts for clarity rather than thundering "big guns") and with a lyrical slant that reminded me of the young Christian Ferras. Chausson's Poème is very sweetly turned, Waxman's Carmen Fantasy hot-blooded, Bach's Chaconne feelingly phrased and unhurried, and there's Ravel's Tzigane where the finale's phased accelerations suggest a healthy well of musical temperament. This really is very good playing.

Khachatryan's shimmering vibrato is distinctly Old World whereas EMI's recently-won star violinist Maxim Vengerov (below) explores a tougher-grained sound world. His new CD of unaccompanied pieces starts playfully with the second of Eugëne Ysaÿe's six unaccompanied sonatas, the one that opens with a reference to Bach's Third Partita Prelude, then toys with the "Dies irae" plainsong tune. Vengerov attacks his multiple stops without straining. He is the ultimate violinist-athlete, a lithe showman with immense facility. In addition to three more Ysaÿe sonatas (Nos 3, 4 and 6) he programmes two works by Rodion Shchedrin, a 16-minute echo sonata – the "echoes" being primarily from Bach's solo violin works – and the all-pizzicato Balalaika, a favourite encore recorded live at the Barbican. It would have been nice if Ysaye and Shchedrin could have shared their disc space with the Bach works that inspired them. But instead we have Bruce Fox-Lefriche's skilful reworking of Bach's ubiquitous organ Toccata and Fugue BWV565, a worthy performance of a work that some scholars suspect isn't actually by Bach. Still, for my money, Andrew Manze's version on Harmonia Mundi (HMU 90 7250/1) is more compelling.

Like Manze, Vengerov plays his Bach with a Baroque bow and fiddle, or at least he does on this occasion. But he's not as impressive as Baroque violinist John Holloway whose ECM programme of six violin sonatas by Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, most of them composed in 1681, has an organ and harpsichord combine for a pleasing bass continuo. Biber was the Paganini of his day (though a far more original composer), a formidable tunesmith who was daringly exploitative of the violin's technical resources and had a marked fondness for variation form. His chaconnes are heady excursions, just the ticket if you enjoy – but are a little jaded by – Pachelbel's Canon. Biber also calls for "creative" mis-tuning called scordatura, which facilitates all manner of tone colours that are otherwise impossible to achieve – though fear not, nothing actually sounds out of tune. Holloway takes all this invention in his stride, bowing an easy, mellifluous line, often at lightning speed but always with unforced vitality. His highly musical collaborators keep a discreet distance and the recordings are expertly balanced.

Sergey Khachatryan plays Brahms, Bach, Ravel, Chausson and Waxman. With Lusine and Vladimir Khachatryan (piano) (EMI Debut EMI 5 75684 2)

Maxim Vengerov plays Bach, Shchedrin and Ysaÿe (EMI 5 57384 2)

Biber 'Unam Ceylam' (Six selected sonatas) – John Holloway, with Aloysia Assenbaum (organ) and Lars Ulrik Mortensen (harpsichord) (ECM New Series 1791)

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