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Distinctive Voices: Three Must-Hear Violin Albums

Three of today's most fascinating violinists have new albums, including Augustin Hadelich, who pairs off with Spanish guitarist Pablo Sáinz Villegas. (Avie Records)

The violin, though centuries old, remains a popular yet remarkably unwieldy instrument. Just squeezing the contraption between your chin and shoulder, then raising your bow arm to the proper height, is enough to induce a pinched nerve. Yet every day countless numbers of people try to make the instrument sing.

Three of the most distinctive violinists have released new albums. Viktoria Mullova continues her exploration of music by J.S. Bach, while Augustin Hadelich teams up with a Spanish guitarist and the adventuresome Carolin Widmann presents an expressive canvas by Morton Feldman.

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Viktoria Mullova - Bach: 'Siciliano' (from the Concerto in E, BWV 1053)

After her spy novel defection to the West (in a blond wig and armored car she snuck into the American embassy in Stockholm in 1983) and robust interpretations of the big romantic concertos, Viktoria Mullova has since dialed down the drama and refined her sound, quietly transforming herself into an exciting Baroque violinist. This collection of Bach concertos is a great example of the new Mullova, who still retains the warmth of her incandescent tone, applying just a touch of vibrato. Especially lovely is the Siciliano movement from the Concerto in E (BWV 1053). Mullova's fiddle sings a bittersweet song, with lovely expressions in the lower register backed by tender sighs from the Accademia Bizantina strings led by Ottavio Dantone.

Augustin Hadelich - de Falla: 'Nana' & 'Polo' (from Popular Spanish Songs)

To hear the violin truly sing is one of the great pleasures in music. And Augustin Hadelich, a 29-year-old Italian-born son of German parents, possesses one of the most beautiful violin voices of his generation. He's also blessed with determination. At age 15, he was badly burned in an accident and told he might never play the violin again. Yet Hadelich persevered, relearned his craft, and won the 2006 International Indianapolis Violin Competition. Since then it's been a steady rise upward. In his new album, paired with guitarist Pablo Sáinz Villegas, Hadelich brings out a myriad of emotions in Manuel de Falla's Canciones Populares Españolas. In "Nana" his violin croons a sweet and quiet lullaby, and in the flamenco inflected "Polo" he ignites a passionate flame.

Carolin Widmann - Feldman: Violin and Orchestra (excerpt)

In this concerto, there are no windswept passages spotlighting the violin, no traditional tug-of-war between orchestra and soloist. There's only the quiet, haunted and slow-moving sound world of Morton Feldman, where time seems to stand magnificently still. Although the music requires a huge orchestra (including beefed up brass, winds and percussion), very few instruments are heard together. Still, violinist Carolin Widmann stands out with a masterful interpretation, delicately applying Feldman's subtle and odd-sounding gestures — from high, crystalline rasps and drooping slides to frayed tones that sound like fingers smudging glass. The music unfolds in a single, 50-minute canvas of floating textures, drips of color and dark rumblings — a fascinating abstract painting in sound.

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