The classical music world is no stranger to child prodigies. The best musicians, it seems, always have mind-numbingly early starts: Chopin's compositions were first published when he was 15, Beethoven gave his first public recital at age 8 and Mozart began composing at age four. Even now, musicians who don't have firmly established performance careers by age 20 will probably never achieve the same success as those who do.
In such a world, a professional recital given by a 16-year-old like violinist Sarah Chang is certainly no uncommon event. Chang was one of the wunderkinds, of course--she made her New York debut with the New York Philharmonic at age 8 and is the youngest performer ever to receive the Avery Fisher Career Grant--but she grew out of her child prodigy title long before she stood on stage at Symphony Hall last Friday night. Chang is no longer miraculous for her age for the same reason she's allowed to drive a car: simply, she's old enough to do it.
What is shocking is that Chang herself knows it. The meaninglessness of her youth is not something the critics have foisted upon her, but rather a feeling that hangs about her like an air of resigned casualness--casualness that comes not from youth but from experience. That she is no a child means her age is no longer an excuse for less-than-perfect playing. At 16, Chang is a mature, even jaded performer.
Chang's playing, too, is anything but youthful. She plays aggressively, with a throaty sound, and caps off her notes with a fast, urgent vibrato. She is unafraid of digging into challenging runs or over-playing. Chang's tone, like Audrey Hepburn's character in Breakfast at Tiffany's, has the mean reds.
Her style was perfect for Strauss' moody Sonata in E-flat Major. This sonata is Romantic with a capital R and dramatic, alternating quickly between slow, cinematic melodies and passionate bombastic chords. Critics have often suggested that the eruptive Strauss sonata is more appropriate for a large-scale symphony orchestra than for violin and piano, yet the piece could not have been more perfect for Chang.
Chang played quickly and never lingered on particularly expressive passages, but she never skimmed over a note in any of the piece's numerous virtuosic passages. Technically, Chang's playing was flawless. Chang proved herself completely flexible in the Strauss piece, jumping with remarkable clarity from her growling low register to her blossoming upper one. The last movement of the sonata was particularly memorable. Chang pushed the last movement's triumphant theme forward almost stubbornly. With expert poise, Chang bluffed the audience with the faux ending--some audience members prepared to clap. Unlike most faux endings, this one was truly surprising.
Chang's interpretation of Mozart's Sonata in C Major, K. 296, was not so graceful. Her bright, biting tone cast an unforgiving light on the piece which, like most of Mozart's work, requires a light touch. Mozart sonatas are meant to be played with an almost off-hand ease: the bubbling passages and sweet melodies cannot be trudged through. The ringing intensity of Chang's playing was not at all suited to the delicate and almost childlike sonata. Chang's high notes blossomed in this piece as in all the others, but the low notes were swallowed up in the thick vibrato--and the simple, rustic melodies assumed a sinister face. Chang did not play as if she loved the music: her movements, even her facial expressions, seemed too programmed and felt too forced--probably not because Chang is a universally negative performer, but because her style is not suited to Mozart.
Unfortunately, the Mozart was the first piece on Friday night's program and thus negatively colored the rest of the recital. The Strauss came second and somewhat restored the audience's faith. On the other hand, programming the Strauss after the Mozart clearly indicated Chang's underlying problem: she plays the same way all the time. The triumph of the Strauss was diminished by the overwhelming notion that the piece was chosen not for its inherent musical qualities but because it coincidentally contained musical elements at which Chang excels. Had the Strauss been programmed first, the overall feel of the recital may have been more positive: the audience would not have had to look for reasons to forgive her as they did after the Mozart.
That aside, however, the second half of the program was truly brilliant. Chang's treatment of Prokofiev's Sonata No. 2 in D Major was both seductive and whimsical, and she performed Sarasate's warhorse Concert Fantasies on Carmen with finesse and precision.
The high point of the recital, though, was Chang's stunning rendition of Chopin's Nocturne in C-sharp minor. Chopin never wrote violin music; the Nocturne that Chang performed Friday night is a transcription of the original piano part. The Nocturne is unfalteringly sublime--in this adaptation, the violin part is elegant and the accompaniment somber and unintrusive. For this piece, Chang abandoned her usual fiery bravado for heartbreaking tenderness. Individual notes melted and the music rang with the unearthly sonority of a human voice. Its only fault was that it was tragically short, leaving one wishing that Chang had played Chopin all night.