The classical music world these days is replete with fine young female violinists, and one of the most promising ones I’ve heard visited the Rinker Playhouse on Feb. 17.
Kristin Lee, a South Korea-born American of just 27 years who is a protégé of Itzhak Perlman, appeared in the Kravis Center’s Young Artists series, accompanied by the splendid pianist Kwan Yi. She chose a program of wide range and unusual interest, including two 20th-century masterworks.
One of them was Karol Szymanowski’s Mythes (Op. 30), in which the Polish composer included a compendium of special effects, most of them fiendishly difficult, to illustrate the three tales from ancient Greece that he evokes in this work: the Fountain of Arethusa, Narcissus and the Dryads and Pan.
Szymanowski’s highly original hyper-Impressionism is ideal for summoning up the hothouse lust-and-magic atmosphere of the first tale, which concerns how the maiden Arethusa was transformed into a fountain rather than yield to the attentions of the river god Alpheus. Lee demonstrated exceptional command of her instrument and this music, from the first high, tense theme above the murmuring piano accompaniment to the downward-sliding chords at the end. She plays with intensity and strength, a focused sound that is nevertheless large, and a formidable technique that allows her to fully explore the extravagant drama of this music.
In Narcisse, which is somewhat more straightforward than La Fontaine d’Arethuse, Lee played the odd-interval double-stop passage in the middle with great accuracy, and made real warmth out of the back-and-forth fourths that are integral to the movement. In Dryades et Pan, the passage featuring harmonics for Pan’s flute had strong definition rather than wispiness, and the minor-second trills that are all over the movement buzzed and flitted most persuasively.
But the major thing about Mythes, and that movement in particular, is that it is monstrously difficult, a piece that gives the violinist no quarter whatsoever. It requires someone with vast technique to pull it off, and Lee did it beautifully. It is every bit as hard for the pianist, and Yi was terrific, bringing out all the Straussian sweep of Szymanowski’s style and its enormous dynamic and emotional range while still being a good partner. Perhaps the best thing that can be said is that these two made living, breathing music out of a work that in lesser hands is an incomprehensible stew of late-Romantic excess; Lee and Yi demonstrated what a wonderful piece it really is.
The other 20th-century work on the program was the fourth, and last, violin sonata of Charles Ives. It’s a very short work in three movements, with all the quirks of Ives that make this singular American so distinctive. Lee played the first movement with engaging personality and a sense of swagger, and in the second, she and Yi, who have separate melodies moving along in an exquisitely beautiful way, played with great sensitivity and feeling. It might have been even more effective slightly slower and softer, to add that elusive nostalgic quality so important to Ives.
In the finale, which quotes Shall We Gather at the River and stops short rather than ends, Lee gave the music a great sense of swing in a short time frame; again, it was about making music rather than exploring interesting effects just for the sake of effects.
The major piece on the program was actually unlisted in the program, though Lee’s note was in the booklet, and this was the Violin Sonata (Op. 18) of Richard Strauss. This piece has enjoyed a great renaissance in the past couple decades; a few seasons back, I seem to recall, it was programmed by a legion of touring violinists. It’s early Strauss, so it has his melodic and harmonic distinction without the mannerisms of his later style; in other words, it’s very conservative music, and audiences love it.
In every respect, this was a first-class reading of the sonata, warmly melodic when it needed to be, gregarious and wide open when that was required. In the upward-motion flourish that opens the third movement (and which is a characteristic of Strauss, most memorably in the opening of Don Juan), Lee nailed it all four times; it’s a treacherous passage that has brought many violinists to grief, but not this one.
She was especially good in the slow movement in her use of dynamics, bringing the proper atmosphere of lush, broadly expressed emotion to bear on the passages that followed the tender, lovely way she played the main theme. All of her interpretive and emotional equipment was on display here; she is a thorough technician and a person who deeply feels the music she’s playing.
Lee opened her recital with a sonata by J.S. Bach (No. 1 in B minor, BWV 1014), in which she sounded a good deal like Perlman: same no-nonsense accuracy, same classic tone. She and Yi chose good tempos throughout, and their accuracy was spot-on. This was Bach in the high European mode, chaste but beautiful, forthright, logical, and deeply satisfying.
She also played another miniature, an Albumblatt by Richard Wagner, a sentimental but pretty tune arranged from the original piano piece by the 19th-century German violin virtuoso August Wilhemj. Lee opened her sound up a little for this one, making a good case for it even though the tradition to which it belongs has largely vanished.
Local audiences got a good chance to see a very fine young player in her South Florida debut, a musician who has all the equipment she needs for a good career, plus an ability to assemble good programs that challenge as well as entertain, and keep you thinking about the pieces long after the event.
Next in the Young Artists series is the Chinese-born pianist Fei-Fei Dong, at 7:30 p.m. Monday, March 10. She plans sonatas by Clementi and Scriabin (No. 4), Lowell Liebermann’s Gargoyles (Op. 29), the Introduction and Rondo of Chopin, and the same composer’s complete 24 Preludes (Op. 28). Call 832-7469 or visit www.kravis.org.