In a competition where female participants dominated going in, the 16 semifinalists were winnowed to about half of each gender. We heard, on Friday, three men and one woman — though more accurately at age 17, Stella Chen (American) is still a girl. After rating her among the top violinists in the preliminary round, I found nothing this time to dissuade me from that notion. She offered everything her male cohorts did in the selections they chose: virtuosic ease and musical depth, with different approaches to their common pieces. But Chen added more tonal beauty — a near perfection of bowing and fingerboard work — to the skills of the other three.
We heard a mix of Beethoven, some Romantic bon-bons and the craggy surrealism that can obtain in both Modern and contemporary music, plus the two best known Prokofiev sonatas. Russian Andrey Baranov opened with Beethoven’s C Minor Sonata, Op. 30, No. 2. American Noah Bendix-Balgley gave us the composer’s “Spring” Sonata—No. 5 in F, Op. 24, repeated by Chen. Finally Hungarian Antal Szalai opened his recital with the Sonata No. 1 in D, Op. 12, No. 1. All these Beethovens exemplified the contrast in performing traits between Chen and her male cohorts.
Baranov, who happened to appear first, gave us the debut performance of String Force, a seven-minute solo violin piece by avant-gardist Joan Towers, stretching his fiddle every-which-way. This continues the IVCI tradition of commissioning a new piece for each quadrennial event. Containing almost all technical challenges imaginable, one can marvel at our semifinalists’ apparent ease in surmounting them. Curiously Baranov and Chen did some string glides near the piece’s beginning while Szalai and Bendix-Balgley did not. What does the score call for? What does it matter? Though all four players worked wonders with it — which the audience recognized and vigorously applauded — I find String Force off-putting in a way I had not for all previous IVCI-commissioned works. Those offered color, revealed folk origins, kept us nearer to tonality — traits that Tower’s well-known atonal world doesn’t possess. Let’s commission Jennifer Higdon next time.
Baranov ended with Prokofiev’s somber-but-moving Sonata No. 1 in F minor. We heard a few intonation (pitch) problems in the second movement’s loud passages; otherwise the four movements went well. Bendix-Balgley finished his program with Prokofiev’s delightfully cheery Sonata No. 2 in D — a reworking of his original flute sonata in that key. Our player deftly shared the composer’s balletic world, especially in the jaunty final movement. Bartók’s 1944 Solo Violin Sonata was the choice of the two evening performers, Chen and Szalai — Chen with a more lyric approach and Szalai a more strident one. I preferred Chen’s.
For the bon-bons, Baranov ended his appearance with Wieniawski’s Polonaise in D, Op. 4; Chen gave us Franz Waxman’s Carmen Fantasy (after the Bizet opera); and Szalai ended the day with another Wieniawski, his Polonaise Brillante in A. Bendix-Balgley, by contrast, played a longer, more serious piece, Schubert’s late-written Rondo in B Minor, D. 895.
I could not choose among the three male violinists for who played the best. But having Chen in the mix made a choice easy.