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She can do anything: Fischer and fiddle.

She’s Got It

By B.A. Nilsson

Julia Fischer and Milana Chernya

Union College, April 5

Although she’s been cranking out a series of warhorse concerto recordings, violinist Julia Fischer returned to Union College last week with a recital program of far-less-familiar works. Two Octobers ago she and pianist Chernyavska were to make their area debut as part of a trio, but the cellist’s visa fell victim to the punch-drunk zeal of Homeland Security and we were given instead a program that set a template for this latest one, with (fairly) romantic duos framing a Bach solo sonata.

I have to qualify that “romantic” moniker because this time we also got the sonata by Debussy, an oddball piece that proved to be his final finished work. It seems at first to be a series of fragments and gestures, but it leaves you, after its brief three movements, with a surprising sense of unity. Two ethereal piano chords herald the violin’s entrance with a characteristically halting theme, and the opening movement unfolds like a street scene, with overheard bits of gossip, snatches of song and ambient noise rendered with a large palette of the fiddle’s effects: the gritty sound way up on the G string, false harmonics, trills and ostinato, along with a sprinkling of blue notes that give the piece a gypsy sound.

It’s a varied and brilliant journey to the finale, itself a witty succession of false endings that didn’t quite fool the enthusiastic audience. The compelling nature of the piece also tends to hide the virtuosic requirements for both pianist and violinist—there’s no showing off for its own sake, and Fischer and Chernyavska don’t indulge in the flashy arm flailing that too many performers display to say, “I’m working here!”

Fischer, who is barely 25, has a fresh, thoroughly affecting sound. Her recording of Bach’s solo sonatas and partitas is unexpectedly convincing. You don’t expect a kid to plumb the emotional depths of these works, which Heifetz termed “the Bible.” Yet her playing invites you to forget that there’s a musician between you and the music.

This was re-proven by her performance of Bach’s Sonata No. 2, a four-movement work with a big fugue in the middle. To present four simultaneous voices on the violin—which, with its curved bridge, can play only two strings at a time—calls both for creative writing (which Bach never lacked) and active listening. And it’s not just the fugue that asks us to imagine a broader harmonic picture than the notes provide.

From the first notes of the stately grave that opens the work, Fischer both sang us the haunting melody and, following the intricacies of the music, drew us into the fuller-voiced fabric with sketchy inflections. In the third movement, one of the most beautiful of all six sonatas, a pulsing harmony accompanies the tune: difficult to play well, beautifully rendered.

The closing allegro is a fireworks show, which Fischer pushed at a too-fast tempo that clouded the line of the movement. Still, her finger work was superb.

The program was bracketed by sonatas by Schubert and Mendelssohn. Or, in Schubert’s case, a “Sonatina,” so named by a publisher nervous of scaring off amateurs. It’s one of a set of three such pieces, all of them full-blown, four-movement sonatas. Sonata No. 2 in A minor was helped by Fischer’s unsentimental approach. It’s as peppy a work (minor key notwithstanding) as you’d expect from this composer, and you can practically hear the lyrics of an ardent song bursting through in the affecting melodic lines.

Mendelssohn’s Sonata in F major is a mature work sparkling with Mendelssohnian froth, especially in the crowd-pleasing presto that finishes the work. The opening allegro substitutes passion for profundity, and the performers approached it differently from the Schubert, adding needed touches of emotion. This only reinforced the impression that Fischer and Chernyavska are a protean pair, with not only the virtuoso chops to play anything, but keen enough insights into what they play to bring out the spirit of each individual work.

Speaking of Heifetz: As Fischer dug into the encore, Tchaikovsky’s Melodie, she sounded uncannily like that violinist on his mid-’40s Decca recording. I’m convinced she can play anything and make it sound as if it always was meant to sound that way. All the more reason to celebrate this amazing performer.

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