Hearing the rising Ukrainian violinist Aleksey Semenenko perform is like a visit to a musical laboratory. At age 25, the monstrously talented Mr. Semenenko is still exploring various approaches to playing his instrument. His ear for matching different effects to a big range of violin repertoire is mostly assured but indicates the potential for further development.
It will be fascinating to see where he is 5, 10 and 15 years from now. It’s almost certain Washingtonians will have the chance to hear the results. Even before Mr. Semenenko’s appearance Tuesday night at his country’s embassy in Georgetown in Washington’s cherished Embassy Series of concerts, he had made his Kennedy Center debut last year, and his bushelful of top competition placements assures him a busy international performance schedule.
Several subtexts were at play in this recital at the Embassy of Ukraine. There was obviously the charged situation in Mr. Semenenko’s country, nicely handled with brief opening remarks by a young female embassy staffer who, after remarking on current developments, noted Ukrainians’ historical resort to musical expression in tense times.
There was also the fascinating juxtaposition of the arrival in Washington this fall of the top two winners in one of the grandest musical competitions of all – the Queen Elisabeth International Competition in Belgium. (It’s a name that generates a double-take: It’s not Britain’s Queen Elizabeth with a “z” but a recent Queen Elisabeth of Belgium with an “s” – no, I haven’t heard of her in any other context either.) The Queen Elisabeth is almost an Olympics of musical performance because it rotates in a cycle of pianists, violinists, cellists and singers, giving ambitious musicians only one shot at it every four years.
In this “violin year” of 2015, Mr. Semenenko won second prize, while Korean violinist Ji Young Lim won first prize. Ms. Lim comes to Washington on November 1 for a recital at the Phillips Collection. It doesn’t take much time on YouTube to see that the two young violinists, while both very confident players, have different interpretive practices.
Mr. Semenenko has a remarkable affinity for composers that stuck to the violin rather than laboring over big symphonies and large-scale piano compositions. The highlight of his recital on Tuesday was a sonata by Italian baroque composer Giuseppe Tartini universally known by its nickname, The Devil’s Trill. Tartini claimed that he wrote this intense competition – it’s four movements long and the violin never once stops playing to let the accompanying piano have a few bars on its own – after dreaming of the devil playing the violin and trying to write down as much as he could remember of the dream.
The final movement of The Devil’s Trill features the impossible (for mortals) trick of repeated trills on various strings played simultaneously with either a sustained note or a separate melody on other strings. The end of the sonata flies all over the violin with trills calling out measure by measure from the very bottom to tippy-top of the instrument. Not only was this a piece of cake for Mr. Semenenko, but the gusto with which he approached it was a great experience just to watch.
Yet the intensity he brought to all four movements, including a slow first movement, was equally impressive. Mr. Semenenko is exceptionally concerned with drawing big contrasts. Baroque music tends to definitively alternate loud and soft passages rather than glide into dynamic contrasts with crescendos and decrescendos. Mr. Semenenko does much more than alternately play loud and soft. When the soft measures arrive, he removes most of the vibrato from his left hand and he either makes the angle of his bow more acute or somehow loosens the pressure so that the tone becomes not just softer but also grainier. When he goes back to loud it’s impossible not to be struck by the impact, almost as if he had magically picked up a different violin in the meantime.
Similar effects were at play in the Sonata No. 4 by Belgium composer Eugene Ysaye. Although written in the 1920s, the sonata is largely based on Baroque dance forms and it was very effectively performed – no easy trick in a different way, as all six of Ysaye’s violin sonatas have no piano accompaniment at all.
At the same time, Mr. Semenenko’s playing does lack a certain “finish” that can affect the listening experience. At the end of phrases he can allow the final note to bounce somewhat awkwardly off the string or slide a bit off-pitch as he makes the final flourish. His core violin tone, while effectively intense and emotional, is not what anyone would call “sweet” and sometimes slides into steeliness.
Some of this was on display in compositions from the traditional canon by Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. Mr. Semenenko’s performance of Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 7 was very dry even beyond how some performers can approach the intellectual side of Beethoven. Mr. Semenenko dug in and left no subtlety about many of the off-beat accents that Beethoven threw into the sonata, as if it did not matter how the note sounded as long as the listener got the point that Beethoven was changing things up rhythmically from his classical predecessors. It’s possible that Mr. Semenenko was affected by the fact that the seventh of Beethoven’s ten violin sonatas is in the fateful key of C minor – the same as the Fifth Symphony, the Pathétique piano sonata, and other “monumental” Beethoven compositions.
I will say that Mr. Semenenko’s accompanist, Inna Firsova, did a brilliant job in matching him style-for-style in each piece, with her Beethoven piano part equally metallic and staccato as his, and her piano playing quite a bit more flowing in much of the rest of the concert. The pair finished with a waltz and scherzo by Tchaikovsky – very virtuoso but not as dreamy as other performers would play it – and a playful fantasy on themes from Bizet’s Carmen, a surefire winner in the hands of any performers as accomplished as Mr. Semenenko and Ms. Firsova.
I do have to give points to Mr. Semenenko for a spontaneous moment right before intermission. At the wild end of The Devil’s Trill, the audience rose for a standing ovation that continued as Mr. Semenenko walked into the adjoining room of the embassy. He came back with the audience still on its feet, raised his right hand in a gesture for quiet, and said in perfect English, “Thank you, but it’s not over.” In the audience’s huge laugh I’m not sure how much they recognized Mr. Semenenko’s sly pushback at the culturally distinct American habit of overly generous standing ovations, including at odd moments like halfway through a concert. But in case that’s what he intended – backatcha, Mr. Semenenko! The young man has quite a head on his shoulders.
Running Time: 2 hours, with one 20-minute intermission.
Violinist Aleksey Semenenko performed at the Embassy of Ukraine – 3350 M Street in Washington, DC on Tuesday, October 6, 2015 at 7:30 p.m. He repeated the performance on Wednesday, October 7, 2015. For future events in the Embassy Series, see their website.