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Strings Attached

As their divergent new recordings attest, the winners of this year's Avery Fisher Prize are gifted violinists with strong ideas behind the bows.

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Fiddlers three: From left Pamela Frank, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Sarah Chang.  

Special considerations are not supposed to enter into the awarding of honors as prestigious and remunerative as the Avery Fisher Prize, which carries with it a purse of $50,000. Even so, it must have struck the committee that ponders these things as odd that among the eleven winners since the award was first given in 1975, there has been only one violinist (Elmar Oliveira), and no women. Whether by accident or design, that oversight was rectified last week. Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Pamela Frank, and Sarah Chang were announced as the 1999 recipients, violinists and ladies all, each with a strongly defined musical personality and each firmly established in a busy, high-profile career. And that, too, is at it should be. The prize, after all, was always intended to be an anointment rather than a boost up the ladder, a tangible sign of recognition for instrumentalists who have already, according to the award's official wording, shown "outstanding achievement and excellence in music."

All three violinists have done that, certainly, although not without a bit of controversy to spice things up along the way, as their latest recordings clearly indicate. Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg has always divided opinion, in part for her unconventional, highly charged emotional interpretations, but even more for her rambunctious persona: agonized onstage writhing in purple jump suits and a rebellious, tough-talking manner that has brought her to the TV talk shows as the bad girl of the violin. Now 38, Salerno-Sonnenberg has apparently calmed down a bit, but she is clearly not about to be tamed if her new recording on Nonesuch is any indication: a fantasia in homage to that classic 1946 film noir Humoresque, which starred John Garfield as a young genius violinist, Joan Crawford as his alcoholic protectress, and Oscar Levant as his sour piano-playing buddy.

I confess that when the disc first arrived, I threw it into the trash as one more bit of crossover garbage I could live without. After retrieving it and listening with some care, I see I was mistaken. The movie, of course, is a compelling period piece from the days when classical music was very much present in American pop culture and an acceptable option for a young person -- if I hadn't grown up then, I might not be writing these lines today. Franz Waxman, a prolific film composer, drenched the plot in heady arrangements of Bizet, Bach, Wagner, Dvorák, Lalo, and others, along with music of his own, and using that as basic material, the album producers have put together an ingenious hour-long soundscape of the movie. With Andrew Litton leading the London Symphony, Salerno-Sonnenberg plays like a demon possessed, her throbbing, cut-and-slash virtuosity and rhapsodic improvisatory style for once very much to the point. This is just the thing for a violinist who will probably never have a conventional career and who has found a happy home at Nonesuch, a label that seems to know exactly what to do with such mavericks.

Pamela Frank projects a quieter image: She is a young violinist (31) who plays the classics with confidence and authority as if to the manner born -- which, in fact, she is, having two noted pianists for parents, Lilian Kallir and Claude Frank. Her musical priorities can be inferred from the violinists of the past she names as role models: Fritz Kreisler -- "a wonderfully warm human being, with so much love in his playing" -- and Joseph Szigeti, whom she admires for his nobility and the vocal quality of his singing line. That icon among fiddlers Jascha Heifetz is also revered but from a distance, as a staggering technician whose performances Frank finds exciting but not especially nourishing. It's also no surprise to learn that she enjoys playing chamber music with such kindred spirits as Peter Serkin and Yo-Yo Ma and takes a healthy but selective interest in new music.

On her latest record from Decca, Frank typically tends to two underappreciated works that respond to her thoughtful blend of spacious lyricism and attention to intimate detail: the A minor Concerto by Dvorák and the Op. 24 Fantasy by his son-in-law, Josef Suk. Perhaps it's the compelling narrative quality of Frank's style, a spontaneous flow of musical ideas intelligently organized, that makes her reading of the Suk score so absorbing. This long one-movement piece is exactly as billed: a fantasy full of almost improvisatory shifts in mood, and the radiant performance here endows the music with precisely the sense of cohesion and inevitability it needs. The violinist's colleagues could not be more appropriate or sympathetically in tune with both works: the Czech Philharmonic conducted by that much-admired authority on Czech music Charles Mackerras.

Sarah Chang first attracted notice at age 8, when Zubin Mehta heard her play, was bowled over, and asked her to appear as a surprise guest soloist two days later with the New York Philharmonic. Since then, she has seldom been out of earshot, and concertgoers have watched her grow up onstage. Although violin prodigies have never been scarce, few make a graceful transition into an adult career, a feat that Chang, now 18, seems to be managing with ease. Born in Philadelphia to Korean parents, she made her first recording for EMI nine years ago -- playing a quarter-size violin -- and on that collection of encore pieces, Chang impressed critics with her finished technical bravura, concentrated self-confidence, and remarkable musical sophistication. She has built on those qualities while rarely straying from the core concerto repertory.

The fact that a violinist of such tender years can concentrate on such oft-heard music and make it sound so fresh is a considerable accomplishment in itself. Chang turns that trick handily on her new EMI disc. With Mariss Jansons conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, she gives interpretations of the Sibelius and Mendelssohn concertos that are well worth hearing despite the huge recorded competition. Her tone has sweetened and her musical instincts have become more refined over the past few years, a definite plus in the Mendelssohn, which she views, as did the composer, as one long-breathed, organically evolving statement. Restraint, intensity of feeling, and delicacy of phrasing also make her reading of the Sibelius concerto special. These are wonderful performances, but even the most stunning virtuoso cannot remain wedded to the warhorses forever. It will be intriguing to see in which direction this important talent heads next.


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