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Dan Davis, August 2008

I then turned to Opera Fantasies for Violin [CD, Naxos 8.570202], which features violinist Livia Sohn playing arrangements for violin and piano of operatic excerpts and compositions based on familiar operatic themes. Solo violin is always a test of a system’s resolution, highlighting the crucial importance of treble accuracy and microdynamics, and again the 306 Pro showed its stuff: the violin and piano were clearly separated in space, the lightning-fast pyrotechnics of Jenö Hubay’s Fantasie brillante on Bizet’s “Carmen” precisely articulated, the violin harmonics in an arrangement of Weill’s “Mack the Knife” crystal clear. At no time did the upper range of the instrument sound hard or edgy.

Robert Maxham
Fanfare, June 2008

During the 19th century, opera fantasies had been a staple in violinists’ recital repertoire; and although the “sonata recital” has pretty much banished them from musically correct society, they still appear regularly on CDs, due perhaps to the refuge 19th-century virtuoso repertoire has taken in that medium. Gil Shaham included Hubay’s Carmen Fantasy in his collection, “Fiddler at the Opera,” but, aside from recordings by Harry Solloway (Polydor 66441) and Franz von Vecsey (partial ones for Gramophone & Typewriter in 1904), the piece has pretty much been abandoned. After hearing Shaham’s recording, myoid violin teacher looked for the music, which I found for him, so the work’s not quite dead.) Livia Sohn’s plaintive tone at the recital’s opening identifies her as a plausible champion not only of this but of all these works, most of which at least trace their roots to another era; and although she may be more captivating in the melodic sections of Hubay’s Fantasy than in the technical ones, she manages to convey the excitement earlier audiences likely felt in hearing familiar melodies in dazzling new settings. Raffs Third Duo on themes from Wagner’s Lohengrin, lasting more than nine minutes, centers its lavishly virtuosic and elegantly idiomatic writing on the “wedding theme.”

The performers have taken the CD’s title, “Opera Fantasies for Violin” broadly enough to include shorter pieces, as well. For example, the duo plays, with what might be taken as almost deadpan tongue in cheek, Samuel Dushkin’s motor-driven arrangement of Parasha’s Aria from Stravinsky’s Mavra. That the wellspring of these fantasies hasn’t dried up (but would today’s audiences identify more readily with violinistic fantasies on show themes or television themes?) emerges from the arrangement of a smoldering aria from Osvaldo Golijov’s opera Ainadamar, of which Sohn’s purports to be a premiere recording. In this affecting piece, violinist Geoff Nuttall takes the second voice. If Sohn’s reading of the fiendishly difficult Stefan Frenkel transcription of Weill’s Threepenny Opera, “Mack the Knife,” doesn’t curdle the listener’s blood, as did Heifetz’s performance from 1945 for Decca, it makes a sort of sense in its own more lyrical-and a great deal less terrifying-way. Stephen Prutsman’s Fantasy on Themes from Strauss’s “Rosenkavalier” (as in the case Golijov’s fantasy and Loeb’s on Bizet’s Pearl Fishers, the jewel box proclaims this a premiere recording) lasts the longest of all these pieces at almost 16 minutes; and in its ambitiousness, it dwarfs Váš a Příhoda’s more familiar settings of the waltzes. Sohn and Loeb also tackle Paganini’s Palpiti, one of the genre’s ancestral mansions; and if the performance seems to lack sizzle, it’s not because she doesn’t possess the required technical polish (except perhaps in the section in double harmonics—but who emerges from that unscathed?), and she does try to endow this blockbuster showpiece with some sort of musical understanding. Geoff Nuttall joins Sohn and Loeb in Loeb’s own duet from Bizet’s Pearl Fishers, a most affecting extract; and the program closes simply and effectively with Szigeti’s transcription of Lalo’s Aubade.

Why do violinists record this repertoire while they play an unvarying stream of Beethoven and Brahms sonatas in recitals? Do they enjoy these showy works (and hope to dazzle listeners through them) but play them only in the closet or offer them primarily to self-selecting buyers who want them, while they fear offending the savants who judge their recitals? Inquiring minds want to know. In the meantime, to those favorably disposed, Sohn’s collection of the old and the new should provide satisfying listening, with its finessed performances, the ingratiating tone of Sohn’s 1770 J. B. Guadagnini violin, the alert accompaniments by Loeb, and the sensitive cooperation of Geoff Nuttall. Generally recommended, but especially so to those who love the virtuoso violin repertoire.

Julie Amacher
Minnesota Public Radio, April 2008

“Opera Fantasies for Violin” is a delightful showcase for the talents of Livia Sohn, Benjamin Loeb and Geoff Nuttall. This new recording also offers a fresh approach to some well-known operatic standards…

Cindi Kazarian
Strings Magazine, April 2008

Violinist Livia Sohn took first prize in the 1989 Yehudi Menuhin International Competition for Young Violinists at the ripe old age of 12, then went on to study at Juilliard with legendary teachers Dorothy DeLay and Felix Galamir. In this new recording, she gives a superb, rousing performance of expertly arranged works by Kurt Weill, Igor Stravinsky, Stephen Prutsman, Joachim Raff, and others.

The detailed liner notes describe the opera fantasy as “the presentation of themes taken from current operas, in new guises”, a popular convention of the 19th century for displaying the virtuosity of such performers as Nicolo Paganini. Paganini’s delightful arrangement of Rossini’s Tancredi, which includes an introduction and variations, demands all of the high-fIying wizardry one would imagine: triple-stops, lightning-fast bow work, left-hand pizzicato, and double-stop harmonics (Sohn sounds like a piccolo!), all of which Sohn executes with jaw-dropping ease and grace.

In Jena Hubay’s adaptation of popular tunes from Bizet’s Carmen, Sohn is a tour de force. She captures the spirit of the music and convincingly portrays each character, from the pomp of the bullring in the “Torreador’s Song”, to the seductiveness of Carmen in the famous “Habanera.”

But the album’s most enticing track is the world premiere of “Desde Mi Ventana (From My Window)”, from the modern opera Ainadamar, written by Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov (winner of a MacArthur Fellowship) and arranged by Stephen Prutsman. Pianist Benjamin Loeb and Sohn are spectacular in their rendition of Golijov’s hauntingly gorgeous evocation of lost love. With her icy, whispering tone in the beginning, which increases to a wide, plaintive vibrato, Sohn is quite convincing. Her husband, Geoff Nuttall of the St. Lawrence String Quartet, plays violin on this piece; he also plays viola in a lovely duet with Sohn in Loeb’s admirable arrangement of the Pearl Fishers by Bizet.

This album is highly recommended for its ambition and high level of expression.

Göran Forsling
MusicWeb International, February 2008

Violinist Livia Sohn has an impressive CV with appearances with over seventy orchestras on five continents. She won First Prize in the Yehudi Menuhin International Violin Competition when she was twelve and has studied with, among others Felix Galimir. Like so many other young musicians she has technical brilliance in abundance and her playing is confident and musical. She plays on a J.B. Guadagnini violin of 1770, which doesn’t sound to be among the most powerful instruments in the business, but it is pliant and lean, although occasionally a bit wiry—or is it the recording? I wouldn’t think so with Norbert Kraft and Bonnie Silver in charge.

The music is another matter. Medleys, fantasies, variations or pure transcriptions of opera melodies for any number of instruments were in vogue during the 19th century and to a lot of people the only way of hearing such music at all. Sometimes they tended to be more vehicles for the player(s) to show off their technical brilliance and Hubay’s Carmen Fantasy is a good example, Hubay being one of the leading violinists of the day. So if you wish to just sit back in your best chair and just indulge in stunning wizardry, start from the beginning—and you get many of the best melodies from the opera in the bargain.

Joachim Raff was an important composer in the mid-18th century, not least as a symphonist, but today he is largely forgotten. He wrote three duos on themes from Wagner operas and the third of them was based on Lohengrin, where the Wedding March is the dominating theme. Honest and beautiful music, though for listeners familiar with the originals a bit watered down.

The aria from Stravinsky’s Mavra isn’t very enticing at all. The piano accompaniment is monotonous to the verge of tedious and also the violin part is repetitive with only a few breaks and changes of direction.

The Argentinean composer Osvaldo Golijov wrote an opera based on the life of Spanish poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca, Ainadamar, which was premiered at the Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music in August 2003. It was later recorded by Deutsche Grammophon, receiving two Grammy Awards. Desde mi ventana is the first solo that Lorca sings in the opera, and the transcription of it on this disc is the first transcription ever from the opera. It is mainly lyrical and contemplative. Not having heard the opera I have no idea of what the original sounds like but this is undoubtedly atmospheric music. Ms Sohn and and Benjamin Loeb are here joined by Geoff Nuttall for a fuller sound.

The two songs from Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera are woven together as a kind of double rondo and it is the suggestive melodies that carry this composition. The longest piece on the disc, Stephen Prutsman’s Fantasy Extract on Themes from Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier was actually the composition that caught my attention most of all. Strauss’s score is of course one of the marvels of colourful orchestration and I was constantly surprised how well Prutsman manages to reproduce the richness of the original—if not in all its vivid colours but in atmosphere.

For sheer virtuosity and melodic sweetness Paganini is of course hard to beat. Whether borrowing themes, as here, or writing his own, he always extracts phrases that seem close to syrupy but he almost always manages to steer clear from getting stuck in treacle. In these variations on the famous aria from Tancredi Livia Sohn is forced to show her hand—and it is a full hand!

The concluding pieces, from The Pearl Fishers and Le roi d’Ys are more or less straight forward transcriptions of well known pieces for violin and piano, with Geoff Nuttall’s viola adding the baritone voice for the Bizet duet.

While I won’t pretend that this is indispensable music it is good to have it available and added value lies in the fact that three of the works here get their first recording. Violin fanciers and opera lovers alike should derive a lot of pleasure from this disc.

Jed Distler, January 2008

Judging from this wonderfully varied and well-programmed recital, the 19th century operatic fantasy for violin is as alive and well in the 21st century as it was in the 20th. It’s true that many works in this genre exist mainly to show off one’s virtuosity, yet violinist Livia Sohn clearly has brains to go with her dazzling fingers. Take Stefan Frenkel’s Threepenny Opera transcription, for example. In addition to Sohn’s effortless negotiation of the Useless Song’s pizzicato arpeggios, upon each repetition she inflects Mack the Knife’s simple repeating melody with subtle variations that never sound different for the sake of being different. She imparts heartfelt musicality and dignity to Raff’s amusingly vapid Lohengrin transcription, and while she insouciantly tosses off Hubay’s fluffy rewrite of Carmen’s greatest hits, her phrasing always is informed by a vocal sensibility.

The range of color and dynamic shading she brings to Stephen Prutsman’s 15-minute Der Rosenkavalier fantasia makes the violin writing seem more varied in mood and texture than it often is. Interestingly, the haunting vocal line and gorgeous orchestration of Desde mi ventana from Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar turns somewhat static when transcribed for violin and piano (actually two violins: Geoff Nuttall enters about two-thirds of the way into the work), although it’s worth hearing for Sohn’s slow, sustained lower-register work. In addition to providing colorful and sharply characterized accompaniments, Benjamin Loeb proves an effective transcriber in his own right as he skillfully transforms Bizet’s famous Pearl Fishers duet for violin and viola. Naxos’ excellent engineering and booklet notes seal my recommendation with a solid “10/10”.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, October 2007

The second-half of the 19th century witnessed a new breed of touring virtuoso whose main aim was to titillate audiences with a show of incredible dexterity, and often involving new ‘tricks’ in playing their instruments. It was tempting for many to became composers in order to write works of such difficulty that others would be unable to place them in their programmes. One such virtuoso was the Hungarian, Jeno Hubay, who became better known as the teacher of the next generation of great violinists. He used, as with many others of that time, the fact that opera had become so popular errand-boys would go round the streets whistling the tunes. That allowed them embellished arias with flights of pure fantasy to amuse their audiences. Hubay’s Carmen Fantasy together with Paganini’s death defying Introduction and Variations are the best-known works on the disc, though Stephen Prutsman shows in his highlights from Der Rosenkavalier that today the art is far from extinct. The remaining tracks are opera transcriptions of rather varying interest. All this is food and drink to Livia Sohn who shot to prominence when taking first prize in the Yehudi Menhuin International Violin Competition at the age of 12. That was 18 years ago and there followed periods working with Dorothy DeLay and Felix Galamir as her mentors. Sohn is the antithesis of violinists who throw caution to the wind, the technical fireworks integrated into her performances with spotlessly clean intonation, the end result being music rather than showmanship. When the composers permit, Sohn has her Guadagnini violin singing with a gorgeous tonal quality, her bowing technique producing long seamless phrases. In Benjamin Loeb she has a partner who knows exactly how to form that flexible backdrop that Sohn needs to negotiate technical pitfalls. Geoff Nuttall makes brief appearances as the third player in the Golijov and Bizet. Naxos’s impeccable Canadian recording team has not quite captured an ideal piano tone, but otherwise it is a well balanced and highly desirable recording.

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