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Unaccompanied ... George Zacharias. © 2009 Divine Art Ltd

Times are a changin'. Fact is fleets of fiddlers navigate technical minefields these days without so much as 'mussing' a hair.

Zacharias is among their ranks and here he takes on highly challenging unaccompanied works from the eighteenth/nineteenth centuries (Paganini), nineteenth/twentieth centuries (Ysaye and Bartók) and the twentieth century (Skalkottas).

Greek-born George Zacharias made his début aged thirteen and studied at Athens Conservatory of Music (class of Pantelis Despotidis), graduating in 1997. The same year he began an advanced year of study at the Royal College of Music, London (class of Yossi Zivoni).

In June 2004 he was awarded a Master's of Music Degree in Performance with Distinction at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music (class of Wanda Wilkomirska) and early this year (2009) he completed original research on Skalkottas' Concerto for Violin (1938), towards a PhD in Music Performance at London's Royal Academy of Music.

At the same time he has toured extensively throughout Greece and the UK, the US, Australia, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Poland, Romania, Spain and Switzerland.

In July 2007 The Observer (July 2007) described him as 'nimbler fingered than a pickpocket' and drew attention to his 'charming and haunting sound'.

The Divine Art recital begins with Paganini's stupefying Introduction and Variations on Nel cor più non mi sento, a theme from the 1788 opera La molinara by industrious Taranto-born composer, Giovanni Paisiello (1740-1816).

Listen -- Paganini: Tema: Andante (Op 38)
(track 1, 0:45-1:09) © 2008 George Zacharias

Pickpocket or not, here and there Zacharias steps somewhat gingerly through Paganini's hair-raising minefield whereas Ricci (in particular) threw caution to the winds, somewhat abrasively as he was apt to be, but indisputably exciting. This up-to-the-minute performance has no lack of technical address but unfortunately the aura of 'spontaneous combustion' is absent. Others in this repertoire are Salvatore Accardo (DGG) and Ilya Gringolts (BIS).

Far better to have included Paganini's more interesting Introduction and Variations on a theme from Rossini's 'Mose in Egitto' (Moses-Fantasie) or Theme and Variations on a Song by Sussmayr for violin and orchestra/piano, Op 8/MSS 19 (Le Streghe).

The highlight of Zacharias' disc is undoubtedly Bartók's spellbinding Sonata for violin solo, Sz 117, BB 124. Violinist Yehudi Menuhin commissioned the work for solo violin from Bartók in November 1943. It was written in New York and in Ashville, North Carolina, where Bartók underwent treatment for leukemia. He finished composing the piece in March 1944 then wrote letters to Menuhin in April and June 1944 to agree on minor changes to make the Sonata more violin-friendly. Menuhin gave the world première in New York on 26 November 1944 and subsequently edited the score for publication.

Listen -- Bartók: Presto (Sonata for Solo Violin)
(track 13, 1:03-2:30) © 2008 George Zacharias

Light years separate the Paganini and Bartók, for while the latter is hardly less technically demanding, it requires far greater rhythmic awareness and a keen Magyar sensibility.

Zacharias finds these more keenly within his grasp than outright pyrotechnics; trademarks of the eighteenth/nineteenth century Italian superstar.

However there are any number of 'fiery' Paganini CDs and several first rate CDs with the Bartók unaccompanied sonata. So your choice is likely to hinge on how important you regard the Skalkottas and Ysaye works.

It's a pity the rivetting Bartók unaccompanied Sonata recordings of André Gertler (1907-1998) and Wandy Tworek (1913-1990) have not found their way onto CDs. Gertler appears on Supraphon SUA-10481 (one LP), and Tworek remains on Decca LM4557 (one ten inch LP).

Tworek was born in Copenhagen of Polish parents who were en route to America but stayed in Denmark. He was a pupil of the musician Max Schlüter and débuted as a concert violinist aged ten years. By the age of fifteen, Tworek was varietekapelmester, appearing in the National Scala, Lorry and Zigeunerhallen.

In Zigeunerhallen, Copenhagen, he entertained for twelve years, and for a time he combined with pianist/comic Borge Rosenbaum (also known as Victor Borge) as a comical musical routine on tour throughout Scandanavia. In the movie Ringing Tones (1945), he played Dvorák's Songs my mother taught me and Bazzini's La Ronde des Lutins. He toured throughout Scandanavia, Holland, England, the USA, Canada and Japan, and in 1967 played at the new Scala in Fiddler on the Roof. Tworek was adept in both the light and classic repertoire and in the 1940s and 50s he made numerous 78rpm classical and popular recordings -- however none are available as CDs.

Beside the definitive Menuhin account (Bartók: Sonata for solo violin, 2nd Concerto with the Vienna Philharmonic and Furtwängler on EMI Références, 7 69804-2), modern recordings by Elise Båtnes (Simax Classics PSC1174, 2008) and Christian Tetzlaff (Virgin Classics VC545668-2) stand out.

Norwegian violinist Elise Båtnes was appointed leader of the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra in 2002. She has appeared as a soloist, particularly throughout Scandinavia, and was leader of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra. She has been a member of the Vertavo Quartet, and has served as artistic director of the Bergen Chamber Ensemble. Today Båtnes is recently appointed concertmaster of the Oslo Philharmonic.

Listen -- Skalkottas: Adagio quasi Recitivo (Violin Sonata)
(track 17, 0:00-0:54) © 2008 George Zacharias

Skalkottas' bleak four-movement Violin Sonata, among his earliest work, lasts just twelve minutes. Yet within that taut compass we discover a distinctive 'voice' with little resembling that of Arnold Schoenberg, his teacher of the late 1920s and early 30s. Zacharias' searching performance suggests that here he is very much at home, and it's no surprise to learn that the Greek virtuoso has researched his countryman's Violin Concerto (available on BIS with violinist Georgios Demertzis and the Malmö Symfoniorkester conducted by Nikos Christodoulou).

The third Ysaye Sonata 'Ballade' in D minor most frequently turns up as a stand-alone item; despite that, Zacharias has chosen to include No 6 in E major, and he surmounts its hurdles with more than sufficient panache. For those who seek all six Ysaye sonatas in a modern recording, violinist Ilya Kaler (Naxos 8.555996) is unrivalled.

God Save the King as we now know it was first published in 1744 in Thesaurus Musicus. It was unquestionably rather older but turned up in performance in London theatres in 1745. One setting, by Thomas Arne, was written for Drury Lane Theatre.

The melody was used far and wide -- in the USA (My Country,'Tis of Thee), in Iceland, Norway, Sweden (1805-1893), Liechtenstein and throughout the Commonweath. As many as 140 composers and rock performers Jimi Hendrix and Queen utilised GSTK/Q.

Listen -- Paganini: Larghetto (God Save the King)
(track 24, 1:06-1:34) © 2008 George Zacharias

As for Paganini's Variations on 'God Save the King' for violin (with optional orchestra), Op 9, MS 56, it's little more than a banal example of musical 'flummery'. Though Zacharias gives it his best shot, it does nothing to enhance the reputation of the Greek fiddler or the Italian composer.

Copyright © 13 November 2009 Howard Smith,
Rarotonga, Cook Islands








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