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CLASSICAL MUSIC : CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

A twist on tradition

This CD season, try giving classics recorded from a twentysomething viewpoint.

December 09, 2007|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Despite efforts to portray it as an art for the aging, classical music has always been a young person's game. No other form of art or entertainment requires such early training. Kids often learn Bach on the piano long before they get around to mimicking Jimi Hendrix on the guitar.

Prodigies, in fact, are classical's business model.

We don't dote on cantos, paintings or films by the teenage Dante, Picasso or Orson Welles, but we do on early Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Shostakovich and even today's Thomas Ades. The Los Angeles Philharmonic's recent International Youth Orchestra Festival tapped surprisingly large reserves of renewable musical resources.

Moreover, the CD market is brimming with recordings by major soloists younger than 30, recordings of interest for lots of reasons. Cheese, wine and interpretations of late Beethoven piano sonatas obviously age well. Still, freshness sells. We take biological pleasure in witnessing rebirth, be it in art or anything else. New soloists sometimes have new ideas. Performance is part athletic, so youth has a physical advantage as well.

And this being the Christmas shopping season, CDs by young artists are great gifts. You might even find that new, young listeners are more readily attracted to Beethoven or Bach played by a fetching, frisky contemporary than by a forbiddingly formal elderly gent or grande dame.

So for a survey of some recent CDs, I've tried (and mostly succeeded) not to trust anyone over 30. Plus, I've steered clear of those who are already big stars -- such as Lang Lang or Gustavo Dudamel -- and tried to give attention to performers who have had little or no local exposure.

Science is still attempting to discover whether it was a genetic mutation or something else that created a new breed of super-violinist: smart, technically brilliant, fearless, energetic, sexy, gorgeous and mostly female. But whatever the reason, the members of this breed just keep coming and impressing. Following in the footsteps of Anne-Sophie Mutter and, more recently, Hilary Hahn and Leila Josefowicz are many more.

No crystal ball is needed to predict that Julia Fischer will go far. At 24, she has recorded a good deal of standard repertory; she is the youngest music professor in Germany; and this month she was voted Gramophone magazine's artist of the year (not young artist of the year -- that went to an older conductor, Vasily Petrenko, who is 31!).

Fischer is an intensely serious musician who comes across in interviews as having her act almost scarily together. She plays with supreme confidence, and you can't go wrong with a Julia Fischer recording. The Dutch label PentaTone, which records everything in superior SACD sound, practically seems to exist for her sake. Her regular collaborator is the youthful (early 40s) Russian conductor Yakov Kreizberg, who is equally reliable.

I was particularly taken with their release this year of the Brahms Double Concerto (with the young cellist Daniel Muller-Schott and the Netherlands Philharmonic), in which autumnal music remembers summer. Now Fischer and Kreizberg have a Mozart disc highlighted by the Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola (Gordan Nikolic) that has similar virtues. Gramophone overstates her case -- Fischer has further to go before she will be a real musician of the year. She is, if anything, too mature for her years, undoubtedly having sacrificed sowed oats to build an early career. But she's young and has time to sow and grow.

Lisa Batiashvili, a 28-year-old violinist from the Georgian Republic, has similar self-possession. Her new recording, on Sony Classical, is of the Sibelius Violin Concerto paired with Magnus Lindberg's Violin Concerto, which she premiered last year.

The Sibelius, taken from a live performance in Finland (with Sakari Oramo conducting the Finnish Radio Symphony), is big-boned and probing. Lindberg's concerto is a rich, rhapsodic piece, full of thick, dark orchestral writing and fabulous full-toned solo trickery.

Shostakovich's First Violin Concerto is presently on every self-respecting young violinist's music stand. Last year, Josefowicz released an impassioned account, also with Oramo. But the concerto has come around again -- twice -- this time by way of a 26-year-old Latvian, Baiba Skride, and a 22-year-old Armenian, Sergey Khachatryan (the only male fiddler in the bunch).

Skride's cleanly etched approach (carefully seconded by Mikko Franck conducting the Munich Philharmonic on a live Sony recording) is fast, distinct and sophisticated, allowing Shostakovich no wallowing, little Weltschmerz, while revealing telling details. It is the most sophisticated performance of the concerto I know. Khachatryan is a prodigious old-school virtuoso, but he is kept in line by Kurt Masur, who conducts the Orchestre National de France on a Naive disc that also contains Shostakovich's Second Concerto. The result is a more traditional take on the bipolar Shostakovich, dramatically switching between moody and hysterical.

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