Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Vasko Vassilev 20th anniversary recital @ Royal Opera House, London

19 January 2015


Royal Opera House

Royal Opera House (Photo: Luke Hayes/Royal Opera House)

We don’t often emerge from concerts silently breathing “Whew! Thank heavens he was really good!” but in this case, it was difficult to avoid that feeling, given that had Vasko Vassilev not deserved a positive review, there would have been hundreds of admirers prepared to plunge some sort of horribly sharp implement into one’s vitals in his defence.

At 23, Vasko was the youngest ever Concert Master of the ROH Orchestra when Bernard Haitink appointed him in 1993, and when you hear him play and, perhaps almost as importantly, see his self-effacing modesty on stage, it’s easy to understand Haitink’s remark “We have to have him!” A wise choice indeed, since he was not only a superb violinist but a man capable of “smoothing things” with the great but “sometimes difficult” Georg Solti, as the orchestra’s principal double bass, Tony Hougham, put it in a heartfelt commentary.

The recital was at its best when Vasko’s playing was dominant, his very distinctive bowing style and intonation – at once flamboyant and absolutely musical – shown to advantage in the Paganini Fantasy (inspired by Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto) and in the Butterfly Fantasy (obviously, inspired by Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.) This kind of music, adapted from already very emotional or showy works, tends to encourage self-indulgence, so it was all the more impressive that Vasko avoided any trace of this and concentrated on the phrasing of the lines, allowing the sentiments to emerge without excessive pleading. Indeed, his playing of the melody of ‘Un bel di vedremo’ and, in another Puccini-inspired ‘Fantasy,’ that of ‘Nessun Dorma,’ had so enticing a line as to render a voice almost superfluous.

The violinist shared the stage with his long-time collaborator, the pianist Pamela Tan Nicholson, whose playing, if occasionally a little on the percussive side, is far more lyrical and sensitive than you might expect from so colourful and exuberant a personality. They were framed by the exquisite floral arrangements of the ikebana master Shogo Kariyazaki, who had also designed the gloriously intricate kimonos worn by the ladies of the ROH chorus. Kariyazaki also participated in the music, delicately arranging gigantic pink and white chrysanthemums on the piano whilst Vasko played Massenet’s Méditation (from Thaïs) in a performance of lyrical sweetness. The flowers were glorious, but nagging thoughts of how anyone can procure such blooms did at times divert one’s attention from the music.

In such a short recital, the contribution made by the small ensembles from the orchestra and chorus was necessarily brief but telling; Fergus Gerrand’s percussion made an especially strong impression in the Flamenco Fantasy (inspired by Carmen) which closed this enthusiastically received recital. The great concert master Mischa Mischakoff was often referred to as ‘Toscanini’s third hand,’ and it seems not too far-fetched to suggest that Vasko Vassilev may well acquire a similar soubriquet: for a musician still only 43, that’s quite an achievement.


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