Fanfare

George Zacharias’s solo recital, recorded on June 28 and July 2, 2008, transmits just the right amount of the reverberation in All Saints Parish Church, Leighton Buzzard, England, to enhance the sound of the 1810 Ceruti violin on loan to him from the Royal Academy of Music’s instrument collection. If that weren’t enough to showcase his violinistic and musical attainments, the repertoire would either do so or break him, as on the rack. The opening work, Paganini’s demanding Variations on “Nel cor più non mi sento” by Paisiello, displays the young Greek’s technical acuity, which he has honed to a sharpness that allows him to indulge in dramatic gestures that might seem less effective has he not so thoroughly mastered the Variations’ virtuoso effects. For example, the slight pauses between the double harmonics in the Third Variation don’t seem either the result of uncertainty of gratuitous eccentricity due to the double harmonics’ bell-like sonority. In the Fourth Variation, it’s easy to hear the bowed notes among the flurries of left-hand pizzicato; those who would prefer a more percussive bow stroke that doesn’t allow the listener to distinguish them may be disappointed.

Bartók’s Solo Sonata, besides its technical demands, requires an ability to hurl the work’s angular fragments without tearing the haunting melodic sinews asunder. Violinists vary in their approach. Some, for example Christian Tetzlaff and perhaps even dedicatee Menuhin himself, file the jagged edges; others, for example Viktoria Mullova, György Pauk or Yulia Krasko leave them to project menacingly. As a listener might have expected from Zacharias’s hyper-acute performance of Paganini, je takes no hostages in the first movement of Bartók’s Sonata. Hardly making any concessions to tonal beauty or relaxing the severity of his approach. The Fuga only intensifies this extremely sharp focus, the Melodia barely relaxes the stringency, and the finale, in which Zacharias plays Bartók’s original microtones, maintains the tension to the very end.

Zacharias’s notes identify Nikos Skalkottas’s Sonata as the earliest of the composer’s surviving works and one he presented to Arnold Schoenberg. Its apparent austerity and rhythmic vigor shouldn’t cloak its contrapuntal ingenuity and the wealth of its ideas. Zacharias plays the piece with the same thrusting angularity with which he projected Bartók’s Sonata, and he doesn’t relax in Eugène Ysaÿe’s Sixth Solo Sonata, the last in a set dedicated to his violinistic contemporaries (in this case, Manuel Quiroga). In the opening flourishes, Zacharias sounds as though he hasn’t quite mastered the passage well enough to lay it with the comparatively rock-solid intonation we’ve heard in performances by Kremer, Ricci, and Kavakos, to mention only a few. In this one-movement work, as in the others, Zacharias’s focus gives the impression of examining passages in isolation rather than connecting them to those that precede them and to those that follow. The resulting clarity can create, as in Paganini, a sense of frisson , or, here and in some of the more melodic passages in Bartók’s work, an impression of disconnectedness that’s either refreshing or disconcerting, depending on your predilections. In Ysaÿe’s work, though, the focus, coupled with a slight sense that the difficulties haven’t been completely shorn, doesn’t seem to flatter the original composition, despite many striking moments.

Ruggiero Ricci identified Paganini’s “ Variations on God Save the King” as the most difficult of his works, and, in his notes, so does Zacharias. So he takes the work (although the entire one, with all the variations intact) at a deliberate tempo that destroys the sense of astonished excitement that Ricci’s recordings generated (with and without piano). Only a few violinists have recorded this work, and perhaps, if they felt free to slow it down this much, many more would do so. But then, why bother?

Those not put off by Zacharias’s generally squeaky-clean performances, with lots of white space, or by a quirkiness that doesn’t quite cross into outright eccentricity. May find this collection more congenial than might those who prefer a warmer, if equally thoughtful and masterly, approach to the repertoire. Recommended to the first category of listeners and collectors.

—Robert Maxham