Julia Fischer hooks Bach concertos in O.C.

Academy of St Martin in the Fields
OC Register

It's been less than a year since the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, half a century old, much recorded, inveterate tourists, visited Segerstrom Concert Hall. The London-based ensemble can no longer surprise, though it remains as excellent as ever. Wednesday night's performance, under the auspices of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, supplied the usual pleasures.

But it also provided local listeners a first look at one of the most talented young violinists working these days. Julia Fischer, 25, rode into town on a certain crest: she's the cover girl, and the subject of an in-depth profile, in February's Gramophone, the glossy British monthly that considers itself "the world's best classical music magazine" and that named her its 2007 artist of the year. She recently signed a recording contract with the venerable Decca label and her first disc for it, a recording with the Academy, has just been released.

There doesn't seem much danger of Fischer being a flash in the pan; flash is not her style. She focuses on the core repertoire and plays it with cool concentration and incisive technique. Also a gifted pianist, she reportedly learns both parts of the violin sonatas she plays (there's talk of her overdubbing herself on recordings in the future) and in at least one instance has appeared on both instruments in concerto performances on the same concert. Wednesday, her dual duties merely included violin soloist and leader of the orchestra. A lack of confidence is not her problem.

The subject for her solo flights were the two concertos for violin by Bach, in A minor and E, BWV 1041 and 1042, which are also on the Decca recording. Despite a nod or two to period performance (a selective use of non-vibrato and some clipped phrases here and there), these were Old School readings, clean, precise and driven. Fischer produced a sweet tone on her Guadagnini violin (made the same year, as it happens, as Bach's death) and her agility on it is all one could ask, nimble, graceful, delicate. Her bowing is smooth and easy; her finger work right on the button.

If you closed your eyes it was easy to imagine yourself listening to an Academy recording of these works made in the '60s, which isn't a bad thing at all. There was no fuss over the phrasing or textures, and warmth of tone was a given. The well chosen tempos, stayed steady, in the pocket, and rhythms were smartly inflected. In the slow movements, Fischer brought her tone down to a silken thread, but didn't make a big deal out of it. In the end, one admired Bach's music as much as Fischer, which is just about the way it should be.

In terms of leading the Academy, both in the concertos and in works by Britten and Walton, she didn't do much (except perhaps in rehearsal). This is a group that can get along fine without a conductor.

And it did. In the performances of Britten's "Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge" and Walton's Sonata for Strings, both intricately argued works, everything was there - unity of purpose, tight ensemble playing, nuances, dynamics and expression. These were completely sculpted readings that also breathed, all accomplished with the merest nods and looks between these musicians.

Framing the agenda, these pieces also added a nice measure of seriousness and complexity to the program. The Britten is a brilliant, sometimes playful, sometimes Mahlerian, and acerbically harmonized set of variations in familiar styles. The Walton is a converted string quartet, dark and shadowy, by turns convoluted and jagged. And the ensemble made exceptional cases for both.

The encore was the finale of Mozart's Divertimento, K. 138, a little candy to end, dispatched with a sparkle that dazzled.