Classical Connections: Rising Stars

Niccolo Paganini.

Last week, one of my friends (yes, I do have some) sent me the link to a piece by the Spanish composer who rejoices in the name of Pablo Martín Melitón de Sarasate y Navascués. To musicians, he is simply Sarasate, one of the finest violinists who ever lived. He was born in the Spanish city of Pamplona, famous for its notorious bull-running every summer.

Sarasate started learning the violin at the age of five, gave his first public concert at eight and was a sensation at the court of Queen Isabel II. At the age of twelve, he began his studies at the Paris Conservatoire and three years later made his first world tour thus launching his career as an international star. He was undoubtedly a child prodigy, a rather over-used expression which unfortunately is often applied these days to any talented children.

Professor Claude Kenneson had wide experience of working with children of exceptional talent. He believed that there is a vast difference between a gifted child and a prodigy. A gifted child is sometimes remarkable, “while a prodigy is always phenomenal and sometimes startling to witness.” We could define a child prodigy as someone who has reached professional levels of performance and musicianship before the age of ten. These remarkable children often display unusual prescience, maturity and an acute awareness of the world around them.

Medical science currently understands little about the mental functioning of these extraordinary children. Research in Ohio has shown that some common denominators include an exceptional working memory, an intense attention to detail and an elevated general intelligence. Interestingly prodigies tend to be unusually altruistic. The issue inevitably brings up the time-worn “nature vs. nurture” debate, but the latest thinking seems to indicate that both nature and nurture have a role to play.

Perhaps there are other, as yet unknown factors at work. It’s estimated that there is a child prodigy among every five to ten million children. The curious thing is that they seem to be on the increase. I don’t have any statistical evidence to back up this statement but there seem to be more child prodigies than ever before. One of them is Teo Gertler.

Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908): Zigeunerweisen. Teo Gertler (vln); Sinfonia Varsovia Orchestra cond. Jacek Kaspszyk (Duration 46:35; Video: 480p)

Teo Gertler is a Slovakian child prodigy, born in Bratislava in 2008 into a Slovakian-Hungarian family. He began playing the violin at the age of four and already has won countless local and international prizes. He displays an extraordinary musical maturity, a unique violin sound and plays with passion and intensity.

He’s performed with the world’s top orchestras and can give perfect performances of technically difficult works that would seriously challenge many a professional violinist. At a recent competition, one of the judges was the acclaimed Hungarian pianist János Balázs. He remarked that Teo’s talent is “simply break-taking…perfect and still developing.”

Zigeunerweisen, usually translated as “gypsy airs” was written in 1878 by Sarasate as a musical vehicle to display his own technical mastery. However, the work is not based on any themes of Romani origin but uses adaptations of pieces by various Hungarian composers.

Perhaps it hardly matters, for it’s a remarkable and engaging piece. Needless to say, it is remarkably difficult to play. Teo Gertler provides a performance which can only be described as stunning. It was given at a music contest known as The Nutcracker, which is one of the most popular events organized by the Russia-Kultura television channel.

Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840): Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major Op. 6 (1st mvt). Himari Yoshimura (vln); National Philharmonic Orchestra of Russia cond. Vladimir Spivakov (Duration: 10:45; Video: 1080p)

In 2019, seven-year-old Himari Yoshimura was awarded the Grand Prize at the 2019 Grumiaux International Competition for Young Violinists in a category consisting of contestants born after 2008. She performed the notoriously difficult concerto by Niccolo Paganini, one of the great violin virtuosos of all time. Her remarkable performance on this video was given at the opening ceremony of the 2019 International “Moscow Greets Friends” Festival, held at the city’s International House of Music.

Paganini led a colourful and action-packed lifestyle, though he was no stranger to chronic illnesses. He might even have had Marfan syndrome, a condition typified by large hands, long fingers and unusually flexible joints. He wrote six violin concertos and this one was completed around 1818. Paganini tended to play his own works at concerts and was intensely secret about his composing techniques, so much so that after a performance he would personally collect all the orchestral parts to avoid the risk of anyone else copying his methods. Most of his works are showpieces for the instrument and even today they are incredibly difficult to perform. It is quite startling watching a child as young as this play technically demanding music with such confidence and musicality. Just listen to the music without the video and you’ll be convinced you are hearing a seasoned top-rate professional soloist.