Of Russian heritage, French-born Jean-Jacques Kantorow received all his training as a violinist in the Franco-Belgian tradition at the Conservatoires of Nice and Paris: his teacher at Paris was René Benedetti, who had learnt at the École César Franck. This is reflected in his discography of over 130 recordings, which leans strongly towards the virtuoso repertoire often favoured by French and Italian players throughout history. Within five years of graduating with a premier prix aged thirteen, Kantorow started winning prizes at major international competitions, including the London Carl Flesch, Genoa Paganini and Geneva International.
Combining the careers of soloist and conductor does not always work especially well. Some (for example Yehudi Menuhin) had notably effective solo careers but made conductors of indifferent abilities; others (such as Bruno Walter) proved to be architecturally strong but stylistically heavy-handed soloists. Kantorow appears to be one of the exceptions, and has appeared to critical acclaim in both rôles at all the major musical centres of Europe, North America, India, the Far East and Africa. He has held residencies with the Orchestre de l’Auvergne, the Helsinki Chamber Orchestra, the Ensemble Orchestrale de Paris, the Tapiola Sinfonietta and the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra, and made guest appearances with ensembles including the Orchestre National de Lille, the Orchestre de Lyon, the Hallé Orchestra and the Bamberg Symphony. Teaching (notably in Paris and Rotterdam) is another important activity for Kantorow, along with chamber music, in which he has perhaps given his most successful performances in a piano trio with pianist Jacques Rouvier and cellist Philippe Muller.
The strength of his personality shows through in his recordings, here of mainly virtuoso violin music, and this is very much to his credit. His tonal aesthetic is very much in the twentieth-century post-war mould, but there is a depth and richness to his approach that is exceptional. He uses a quite strong vibrato (which can at times be rather wide, resulting in the flaccid sound heard in the finale of his Lalo Symphonie Espagnole) and a depth of intention and tone that is immediately arresting, making his performances strongly communicated. Kantorow seems at home in the language of Saint-Saëns, with a powerful and committed Introduction et Rondo Capriccioso (1998) and a fine Violin Concerto No. 3 (2004), both with the Tapiola Sinfonietta which he has also conducted. His Lalo (2007) is rather mixed, although the charismatic opening—pushing his instrument to its very limits—is exceptionally fine, as is Paganini’s Concerto No. 7 (recorded live at Paris’s 1982 Paganini bi-centenary celebrations), with a vivid stylistic approach. Not always technically perfect, Kantorow’s ‘on-the-edge’ musicianship sometimes pushes a little beyond his control; he can also be guilty of idiosyncrasies that some would undoubtedly find in bad taste, such as an exaggerated vibrato. Nonetheless, as a rich and powerful (if unadventurous) 1995 Beethoven Triple Concerto with Wallfisch and Roll shows, his playing admits variety according to stylistic context in a way that shows considerable thought.
Whilst there are, certainly, more accurate violinists in this modern age of astonishingly high technical standards, there are few who communicate more powerfully and directly (whether or not the stylistic decisions suit everybody). Kantorow is a fiery and impassioned player, truly in the spirit of the best of violin virtuosity.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Milsom (A–Z of String Players, Naxos 8.558081-84)
Role: Classical Artist