Sarah Chang is indisputably the most precocious violinist the world has ever seen. She played Paganini's First Violin Concerto under Zubin Mehta at eight, recorded her first CD at nine (Heifetz and Menuhin started at 10 and 12, respectively) which included such dazzlers as Sarasate's Carmen Fantasy and Paganini's Caprices Nos.1 and 15, and recorded Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto at eleven. I once listened to this 15-year-old girl's recording of Bazzini's Ronde des Lutin, one of the most formidable bravura thrillers, and was totally awestruck by her bull's eye intonation throughout the piece, which was played with more precision than the recordings of Heifetz, Menuhin, and Perlman; and even when her fingers are stranded miles up the G string, the tone was never rough. Certainly she already has astonishing instrumental command (only her left-hand pizzicato needs improvement), but is this "infant" fully fledged artistically?
Heifetz's recording of Vieuxtemps's fifth concerto has been deemed by many to be peerless. I myself acknowledge his supreme interpretation, but was always annoyed to hear several notes played out of tune (especially in the third movement) and many rough and undesirable noise. Can the 14-year-old Sarah Chang beat him?
As usual, these are all note-perfect performances, and no unbearable gruff sound ever assails the ears (at least not from my CD player). The first three ascending arpeggios are played tenderly with affectionate warmth and charm, the overall impression being infinitely feminine and absolutely enthralling. Yet the sensuous sound is often altered with moments of authoritative command, played with robust and sturdy-but not rough-notes, and she sure pays attention to the dynamics and accents, making the rendition of the first movement superb.
The cadenza, though played scrupulously clean, cannot match the speed and thrill of Heifetz's and Mullova's in some arpeggios. And in the cadenza and slow movement, one perceives that Chang is not yet a master of rubato and portamento, especially in comparison with Heifetz. This does not imply that her interpretation is dull; her lush, ardent, expressive tone and heartwarming approach to the music alone render the performance compelling, and she does employ nuances, though not to a copious extent.
The last movement is basically played with muscular bow strokes and felicitous accents in a most forceful and admirable way; yet there was a tinge of slowing down on or before two high-pitched notes, and the volume of the high harmonic drastically decreased, thus interrupting the ongoing pulse of the music. But in the Heifetz recording, though the fiery flow of the music never halted, the overall rendition was devastated by too many inaccurate notes (in this brief finale) and coarse sound, making Chang's recording still preferable.
To my previous question: did Chang surpass Heifetz in this work? In terms of technique and tone, definitely; interpretation is a matter of opinion, and I would say her first movement before the cadenza is positively my favourite, and her overall interpretation is excellent by any standard.
Lalo's Symphonie espagnole was recorded in a live concert, making the precision of intonation even more astounding. She almost seems like a hermaphrodite, for she can easily switch her playing from feminine to masculine (and vice versa) from phrase to phrase. She may sing most winsomely, tenderly and movingly in lyrical passages, and instantly appear like Hercules playing with a virility one cannot always find in a male player. Her tone can be soft, pliable and warm, then solid, brawny and powerful.
But though her tone is colorful, it's not kaleidoscopic, for her major means of varying tone colors lies in altering the bow pressure from one extreme to the other. And while her tone is ductile, it's not as elastic as Midori's, therefore her playing, though sensuous, may not be seductive and provocative enough in some places.
Her rendition on the whole is sterling, perhaps outstanding, and the first four movements are rendered truly entrancing; but I would not say her artistry is fully mature. First of all, as in the Vieuxtemps concerto, there's a dearth of rubato and portamento that would have given the piece ultimate charm, allure, sensuality, and Iberian flavour. Second, she hasn't yet a vibrato of diverse speed, width, and intensity. Sometimes her vibrato does her more harm than good, for example in the fifth movement-the lyrical passage turns cloying because of excessive vibrato. Third, in the last movement, the frequent trills sound monotonous--always played at rapid velocity throughout, without sometimes having a slower start or end, or adding some ornaments--thus lost much of their expressivity.
But remember, we're talking about a 14-year-old girl, and objectively judging her performance with the strictest and highest standard required of the greatest virtuosos. Given her stupefyingly prodigious development in her first 14 years, we can be sure that her currently nascent artistry will progress by leaps and bounds in the next few years, and maybe she's already invincible from every facet at this writing (age 17). What a staggering thought! She is no doubt one of the most promising, spectacular and exciting violin virtuosos ever, and possibly queen (or co-queen, with Midori) of the violin in the next century.