CofC’s School of the Arts has brought many fine chamber artists for three seasons now, as part of its Charleston Music Fest mini-series. But few among them could claim the kind of exalted reputation that American violinist Eugene Fodor brought with him the Simons Center Recital Hall on Friday.
In collaboration with Charleston-based mega-pianist Volodymyr Vynnytsky, Fodor brought us a generous and thrilling program of classics and showpieces that left his lucky listeners limp with artistic exhaustion.
The program began with the Chaconne in G minor: a set of virtuosic variations popular among violinists. It’s generally attributed to Baroque-era composer Tomaso Vitali (though it was listed in the program notes as the work of Giovanni Vitali, his father). Its origins are further clouded by the fact that a German violinist (Ferdinand David ) later re-composed the piece, incorporating wide-ranging key shifts and other Romantic-era touches that aren’t consistent with Baroque methods. But no matter who wrote it, it’s a wonderful piece that — in Fodor’s hands — brought the house down.
Then it was on to Johannes Brahms’ third and final violin sonata — the often craggy, cranky one in the stormy key of D minor. Yet Brahms could never stay angry for long, and filled this one with his hallmark touches of warmth and lyricism as well. Fodor rendered it with searing tone and deep feeling, realizing the second movement’s soft sadness to crushing effect. He also brought out the third movement’s spooky spontaneity especially well — as well as the crashing drama of the headlong finale. Vynnytsky got his hardest (and most impressive) workout of the evening in this one, matching Fodor’s passion and dexterity note for note.
But Fodor saved his shameless showpieces for the program’s second half, when he and his glorious Guarneri del Gesu violin (I always think of a great Cremona-made instrument as a living thing) conspired to re-define fancy fiddling for his delighted audience.
First up was an unlisted bonus: two movements from Eduard Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole — actually a violin concerto of sorts. Fodor made the bouncy Scherzando sound like a skittering game of musical tag, and his ravishing tone in the Adagio melted our hearts. Vynnytsky made for a convincing ersatz orchestra.
From then on, it was all famous and fiendishly difficult violin show-stoppers — save for Joseph Achron’s tender and idiomatic Hebrew Melody that ended with an exquisite muted passage. Otherwise, Fodor made Maurice Ravel’s forbidding Tzigane and Niccolo Paganini’s near-impossible La Campanella sound almost like child’s play.
The final number was Henryk Wienawski’s glittering Scherzo-Tarantella: the very piece that first awakened my own passion for violin music when I heard Itzhak Perlman perform it as a 13-year-old on the old Ed Sullivan Show. And Fodor’s spine-tingling passion and dexterity made it every bit as gut-wrenching as it was at that seminal moment of my life. Unforgettable.
Vynnytsky didn’t have as much to do in some of these later pieces, focused as they are on the violin. But Fodor’s spontaneous, freewheeling style certainly kept him on his toes (and fingers!).
Our clamoring standing O got us a peachy encore: Jascha Heifetz’s fetching Minuet in the style of Porpora — bringing to a close one of the most memorable violin recitals I’ve heard in my fifty-plus years of voracious listening.