There’s a sweet spot for young artists after they’ve started to be recognized but before they’ve gotten really famous. Actually, the sweet spot is for audiences who get to hear them in intimate venues rather than the big halls they’ll play in when they make the big time. It’s a spot the Washington Performing Arts Society has been able to hit, time and again, thanks to the exigencies of programming — lots of young artists start to make their reputations long in advance of their debuts in a given city. Still, it’s one of the organization’s great strengths that it offers local audiences a chance to hear the brilliant pianist Daniil Trifonov or the lovely violinist Vilde Frang in the intimacy of the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, where Trifonov played a couple of weeks ago and Frang played, along with the pianist Michail Lifits, on Sunday night.
Frang, who was born in 1986, has made several fine recordings, including a fresh, no-nonsense account of the Tchaikovsky concerto, paired with one by Carl Nielsen, that came out last year and made me want to hear more of her. Her recital certainly bore out the idea that this is a violinist to watch. The program followed the time-honored “look, I can do everything” template of the debut recitalist, with a piece from every column: Classicism (Mozart’s F Major Sonata), the French repertory (Gabriel Faure’s Sonata in A), Viennese Romanticism (three Brahms Hungarian dances), and the Russian school (Sergei Prokofiev’s bright, ardent Second Sonata), topped off with a Heifetz encore.
And indeed, she could do everything. Pre-Raphaelitic in appearance, graceful in her approach, she turned out, rather unexpectedly, to embody the stereotype of the young prodigy by excelling at the fireworks. They weren’t typical fireworks, to be sure; her playing was less flashy than kinetically propulsive from the moment she flew, headlong yet sure, into the opening movement of the Mozart. Her interaction with Lifits, whose performance crackled with nervous energy, only fanned the flames. Yet the two made heavier work of the Mozart’s subsequent movements, growing slightly earnest in the second movement’s many variations. The promise and thrill of the evening’s opening was better borne out by the Faure, sure and strong and vibrant.
Frang’s playing is at once assured and slightly coltish — an appropriate sign of an artist whose range includes wide extremes without ever lapsing into excesses. She plays with a big, wide vibrato yet managed to make it sound perfectly idiomatic in the Faure; she plays with plenty of fire and expression, yet can rein herself in with stylishness, pulling back to give a repeated phrase a touch of extra polish. Most importantly, she plays with a sense of enjoyment, a hint of sunniness even in fraught moments. Of course, it was a program shot through and through with sun, from the exuberant excesses of the Brahms to the Prokofiev sonata, which she punctuated crisply with an almost frightening smack of the bow on the strings at the end of the second movement but released gently at the end of the fourth. We’ll be hearing Frang again in larger halls, with major orchestras; it will be a pleasure to watch her grow.