By Lawrence Budmen

The young German violinist Arabella Steinbacher recently made a high profile New York debut. A winner of the Joseph Joachim International Competition, she has performed and recorded with major ensembles and conductors. But her recital on Thursday for the Coral Gables Congregational Church Summer Concert Series was frustrating.

While Steinbacher’s ultra intense playing produces superficial excitement, she lacks gracious musicality to balance the relentless propulsion of her interpretive eccentricities. (Leila Josefowicz plays in a similar manner but has such violinistic command that her musical convictions ring true.)

Steinbacher was most impressive in the program’s two 20th century offerings. Alfred Schnittke’s Sonata No.1 is a typically quirky essay in musical black humor. The composer was a protégé of Shostakovich and the darkness of that composer’s late works rings through the sonata. A jazzy scherzo suggests Jacques Press’s Jazz Pizzicato and the bluesy violin riffs of Stephane Grappelli. The sonata is a wild, devilish brew that flirts with atonality and polyrhythms. 

Steinbacher gave this tour de force a sizzling performance. Her daring, feverish playing encompassed this score’s bleak landscape and grim wit. 

Schnittke’s keyboard writing is almost impossible to reproduce. Robert Kulik’s pianism was extraordinary. Jagged rhythms and cluster chords had amazing clarity and impact. 

Kulik is a consummate musician. His subtly calibrated musicality served both Steinbacher and the composers nobly.

Steinbacher also vividly captured the over the top, gypsy fire of Ravel’s Tzigane. Her performance lacked the sophistication and lightness that Vadim Repin brings to this showpiece. 

Steinbacher’s interpretations of romantic repertoire were less than idiomatic. In Grieg’s Sonata, her harsh tone, heavy vibrato, and hard driving intensity produced playing that was often coarse and inelegant. 

Brahms’s Sonata in D Minor lacked romantic warmth and allure. Spaciousness and repose were absent from this performance. The final Presto needed greater dynamic and tonal variety.

Steinbacher slighted the high harmonics in an otherwise lovely version of the Heifetz transcription of Ponce’s Estrellita (as an encore).

The eclectic rhythmic and tonal patterns of contemporary music seem best suited to this violinist’s talents. Romanticism does not seem to be part of her artistic profile.

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