March 09, 2006


Bolcom: Violin Sonatas 1-4. Solomia Soroka, violin; Arthur Greene, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

Paganini: Guitar Music. Marco Tamayo, guitar. Naxos. $8.99.

     There is great pleasure of discovering something unexpected in music.  William Bolcom is thought of primarily as a vocal composer (especially in light of the deserved enthusiasm generated by his magnificent Songs of Innocence and of Experience).  Secondarily, Bolcom, a pianist and strong interpreter of his own piano music, is associated with his chosen instrument.  In fact, though, he has written in numerous forms, including symphonies and operas – and four interesting, unusual, technically difficult and highly varied violin sonatas.

     What is unexpected in these works is not only their existence but also their structure, which has more classical and traditionalist qualities than one usually finds in Bolcom’s music.  The First Sonata was originally a student piece, composed in 1956 (when Bolcom was 18).  But the composer revised and significantly shortened it in 1984, making it tighter but less revelatory of his youthful energies and interests.  The Second Sonata (1978) is a jazz-oriented work and a tribute to jazz fiddler Joe Venuti, whose memorial it became when Venuti died while the work was being composed.  The work’s finale is specifically dedicated to Venuti, but the whole sonata partakes of his ideas and sensibilities, for example in the blues of the first movement, the salsa of the last and the violin techniques throughout.

     The Third Sonata (1993) is the most remarkable of the four.  Bolcom calls it “stramba,” Italian for “weird.”  It starts in theatricality, continues into implacability, merges tragedy with lyricism in its Andante slow movement, and mixes Arabic elements with the sounds of a tango in the finale.  This is strange music, quite unexpected from Bolcom, yet bearing his unmistakable stylistic stamp.  The Fourth Sonata (1994) is interesting, but ordinary by comparison with the Third.  There are again Arabic influences here, and some Danish ones, and an unusual second movement called “White Night” in which a supposedly restful tune produces wakefulness instead.  Solomia Soroka and Arthur Greene, a husband-and-wife team, play all the sonatas with panache.  They clearly understand the works’ underlying classical roots and forms, even when Bolcom deviates significantly from them.  The result is thoroughly satisfying, even exhilarating, music-making.

     If Bolcom is not generally associated with the violin, Paganini always is.  But he is rarely identified with his second instrument, the guitar – and that is what provides the unexpected pleasure of Marco Tamayo’s recital.  Paganini seems to have had a love-hate relationship with the guitar, for which he never wrote as virtuosically as he did for the violin.  This is easy to hear in Tamayo’s playing: the most “Paganini-like” works here are Caprices Nos. 5, 11 and 24 – all originally written for violin.  But there is certainly a degree of virtuosity required in some of the works originally written for guitar, notably the Grand Sonata in A Major, whose finale – a set of variations – becomes dazzling by the end.

     The other pieces here are minor, but occasionally – even more than occasionally – interesting.  From the Ghiribizzi (‘fancies” or “caprices,” apparently intended for young players), Tamayo plays Nos. 15, 16, 22, 37 and 38, which are in varying tempi and of varying levels of difficulty – none outstandingly hard.  There are also four of Paganini’s ordinary (not “grand”) guitar sonatas here – Nos. 4, 6, 14 and 30 – each being a two-movement work starting with a minuet.  These have classical poise and balance, pleasant tunes and not a great deal of musical interest – but Tamayo plays then with considerable attentiveness and skill.  This Naxos CD is interesting mainly for showing a little-known, hence unexpected, side of a composer whose reputation rests entirely on his violin compositions and performances.

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