Joo Yeon Sir: Chaconnes, Divertimento & Rhapsodies

Joo Yeon Sir Chaconnes

Hearing Joo Yeon Sir’s barnstorming performance of Pancho Vladigerov’s Bulgarian Rhapsody “Vardar” at St James’s Piccadilly with Irina Andrievsky in August made me want to return to her recently-released second CD, Chaconnes, Divertimento & Rhapsodies, for which Vardar is the penultimate track. The album, from Rubicon Classics, follows on from her successful first album Suites and Fantasies, released in 2017.

For someone who is not totally immersed in the violinist’s repertoire, each track on this year’s album gives something new. Even the first track – Bach’s famous D minor Chaconne – brings a surprise, because it begins with an emphatic bottom D on the piano. Yes, this is Mendelssohn’s arrangement of the work, giving it a piano accompaniment. This is not an embellishment, in the way that Grieg’s extra piano part for some of Mozart’s piano sonatas adds a fun layer of sugary confection that transforms the original into something different. Mendelssohn’s aim was simply to make the work accessible to a 19th-century audience: while respecting the original he makes more obvious some of the harmonies that listeners to the unaccompanied work have to supply for themselves.

It must be tempting today for a performer, when faced with the additional possibilities provided by the modern piano, and following in a performing tradition of thunderous renditions of the Busoni transcription, to overplay some of the climaxes in this work. But Sir and Andrievsky show commendable restraint and taste, leaving Bach to speak for himself, albeit through the lens of his 19th century admirer.

The Bach/Mendelssohn is the track I have played most on this album, but it flows naturally and almost imperceptibly into the next – a Chaconne attributed to Tomaso Vitali, in an arrangement by Leopold Charlier. In fact, if you leave the room during the Bach and return during the Vitali, for a you moment wonder if you are still listing to the same piece. The figured bass, though, is simpler than in the Bach, and Charlier’s 1911 version contains post-baroque elements that Joo Yeon Sir enjoys to the full.

Next comes another rarity (at least, for the non-specialist): Stravinsky’s Divertimento, Suite from Le Baiser de la fée – originally a 1928 ballet composed in homage to Tchaikovsky that Stravinsky subsequently arranged into an orchestral suite and finally a duo for violin and piano. Skittish and tuneful, this piece is a bundle of fun: when I first listened to it, parts of it sounded like Poulenc, and parts of it like Debussy at his most playful. It’s the most unstravinskian bit of Stravinsky I think I’ve heard.

Next comes a robust Rhapsody by Bartok based on Romanian and Hungarian folk melodies (though, according to Katy Hamilton’s informative sleeve notes, no-one actually knows which ones). After a slowish, earthy first section, the second, faster melody offers the performers plenty of opportunity to sparkle, and Sir and Andrievsky execute it with pizzazz.

Another comparative rarity is the piece by Pancho Vladigerov, a name known mainly to Bulgarians and violinists. But his Vardar, composed for his twin brother Lyuben, is a real gem. Based on Bulgarian folk tunes, it offers plenty of opportunity for virtuoso display, including a passage towards the end where the bottom string has to be tuned down to E for a while before being retuned back to G.

Finally comes another showpiece: Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s piece composed for Heifetz based on a theme from Rossini’s Figaro. This is probably my least favourite track, through no fault of Sir and Andrievsky: I’m just not a particular fan of Rossini. But there’s plenty to admire in the playing.

There’s so much to enjoy on this well-filled album (71 minutes long), but I tend to linger most on the first two tracks. Great performances throughout, with a strong feeling of partnership between the players.

Chaconnes, Divertimento & Rhapsodies was released by Rubicon Classics in May 2019.

Links:

Joo Yeon has had a fair amount of favourable coverage as part of the album release. A particularly genial listen is her interview with DJ Ritu on Resonance FM – a one-hour podcast which is well worth a listen, both for the conversation and for a live performance of one of her own compositions

While the interview was taking place, artist Alban Low was doing some lightning-quick ink sketches. You can find them on his blog Art of Jazz.

She also made an appearance on Radio 3’s In Tune programme, which seemed to go down well with the production team judging by their tweets:

Finally, Joo Yeon has just released a video of her own composition, My Dear Bessie, inspired by the book of the Second World War love letters of Chris Barker and Bessie Moore, who began their corresondence in 1943 as friends and fell in love through their exchange of letters.

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