A Disciple Of the Violin’s Ice Princess

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The New York Sun

It looked like a promising week for fans of Edvard Grieg in New York. On Thursday evening, we will be listening to the Bronx’s own Terrence Wilson perform the Piano Concerto with the Riverside Symphony at Alice Tully Hall. And on Sunday, Arabella Steinbacher and Robert Kulek opened their program at Town Hall with the Sonata No. 3 for Violin and Piano.

Grieg was an amazing composer, a melodist of incomparable creativity and a master of the Romantic miniature. He was very popular in the first half of the last century, even becoming the subject of a Hollywood biopic. He has since faded into obscurity, and his to-die-for song cycles have not been heard regularly on these shores since the days of Kirsten Flagstad.

The New York debut of Ms. Steinbacher, this was the first such event in the history of the Free for All series. It was a reasonable beginning. This violinist is a secure technician if not a spectacular one. She does have the ability to develop a singing line, as she demonstrated in Grieg’s Allegretto.

However, her tone is quite thin and her sense of the dramatic subdued. The opening of the piece should be huge; it was not.The tension should be palpable; it was not. The transitions between deeply emotional sections should be chilling; they were not.

Ms. Steinbacher does have a solid command of vibrato, but she appears to be hesitant or unwilling to emphasize the deep feelings of such an unabashedly Romantic work. She is young, and so it would be optimistic to state that a more profound sense of communication will develop with time. I hope this is the case, but I have some doubts, especially since discovering that she has been coached by the Ice Princess herself, Anne-Sophie Mutter.

There is a core group of Central Europeans who consider themselves too cool for school, who espouse phlegmatic detachment as the ideal, and Ms. Mutter is their role model. Bags of technique are repressed in the service of dampening emotions. The very bow that Ms. Steinbacher uses was given to her by Ms. Mutter. It is probably incapable of expressing any genuine feeling.

There were no program notes per se for this recital, but there was an insert titled “A Note About Schnittke’s Violin Sonata.” I didn’t read it. Music that needs an explanation is suspect at best, and I found little musical value to discuss in this piece. But the duo did seem to perform this pretentious construction quite well, demonstrating a commitment to the music of our time.

It was a pleasure to hear the Brahms Violin Sonata No. 3. Here the duo was more focused, with Mr. Kulek playing more emotively but considerably less accurately than Ms. Steinbacher. The violin part was faithful to the score, with all the notes neatly in place, but again there was a decided lack of heartfelt expression. Perhaps the shortcomings of this recital were not so much in its execution as in its choice of repertoire.

It doesn’t appear on the surface to make a lot of sense to program two such gorgeous pieces as the Grieg and the Brahms and then present them so robotically. Ms. Steinbacher might be better adapted to the Classical period and its modern incarnation as a collection of desiccated museum pieces.

The recital ended with Maurice Ravel’s “Tzigane,” a piece that Mr. Kulek described as “flashy.” This adjective might have been appropriate except that Ms. Steinbacher chose this moment to misplace a good deal of her technical prowess. Entrances were tentative, exits were not coordinated with those of her accompanist, and her left hand pizzicato was woefully deficient. She had violated the first rule of showmanship by saving the worst performance for last.

Finally, someone needs to explain to the crowd at these events that the soubriquet of the series, “Free for All,” refers only to management’s policy not to charge for tickets. It is not a license for audience members to do whatever they please. This evening it was not cellular telephones but rather flashing cameras that were the problem. Unfortunately, the most exciting moment at this recital was when one aspiring paparazzo was forcibly removed from the auditorium by a team of security personnel. Welcome to New York, Ms. Steinbacher.

The New York Sun

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