Lyapunov: Violin Concerto in D minor; Symphony No. 1. Maxim Fedotov, violin; Russian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Dmitry Yablonsky. Naxos. $8.99.
Mieczyslaw Karłowicz: Violin Concerto in A; Serenade, Op. 2. Ilya Kaler, violin; Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Antoni Wit. Naxos. $8.99.
Tartini: Violin Sonata in G minor, “The Devil’s Trill” (arr. Kreisler); Bach: Chaconne from Partita in D minor, BWV 1004; Wieniawski: Légende in G minor (arr. Gustav Saenger); Variations on an Original Theme for Violin and Piano; Franck: Sonata for Violin and Piano. Ray Chen, violin; Noreen Polera, piano. Sony. $11.98.
Hoffmeister: Double Bass Quartets Nos. 2-4; Schubert: Arpeggione Sonata (arr. Norbert Duka for double bass). Norbert Duka, double bass; Ernö Sebestyén, violin; Helmut Nicolai, viola; Martin Ostertag, cello; Phillip Moll, piano. Naxos. $8.99.
Violinists seeking outlets for their virtuosity, and willing to go beyond the standard repertoire, have an unusually wide array of choices nowadays, as interest rises in long-forgotten but often very worthy violin concertos and other works that provide opportunities for both subtleties of technique and fireworks. Sergey Lyapunov’s very well-made Violin Concerto (1915, revised 1921) gives Maxim Fedotov plenty of chances to show his mettle, and gives listeners many opportunities to hear Tchaikovskian romanticism: some lovely themes, considerable challenges in passage work, and unceasing demands on the violinist for beauty of tone combined with impeccable phrasing. A single-movement work, this concerto effectively alternates sections that wear their heart quite deliberately on their collective sleeve, as shown in Liapunov’s tempo indications, such as Allegro appassionato and Un poco più tranquillo. The concerto is not especially distinguished in form (it takes after Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1), but it has lovely melodies and effective display passages, and Dmitry Yablonsky and the Russian Philharmonic handle the broadly sketched orchestral sections very well indeed. They also do a fine job with Lyapunov’s Symphony No. 1, an early work (dating to 1887, when the composer was 28) that includes some interesting horn writing, well-handled rhythmic changes and a certain level of grandiosity that echoes Tchaikovsky – even though the work was less influenced by him than by Mily Balakirev, who always had a major effect on Lyapunov and who actually had a hand in the creation of the symphony.
The violin concerto by the short-lived Polish composer Mieczyslaw Karłowicz (1876-1909) is another that shows distinct traces of Bruch’s influence, although it is in three distinct movements (which are, however, joined to each other). Dating to 1902, this concerto too shows strong Tchaikovskian influence in its overall sound, although its melodies and formal design have enough originality to give it the composer’s personal stamp. Ilya Kaler handles it with considerable sensitivity and skill, and Antoni Wit and the Warsaw Philharmonic provide very fine if not especially distinctive accompaniment. The orchestra also does a good job with Karłowicz’ first orchestral work, a Serenade dating to 1897 that is actually less influenced by the popular contemporary serenades of Tchaikovsky, Dvořák and Josef Suk than might be expected. Karłowicz’ work includes a March, Romance, Waltz and Finale, all of them expressive and well harmonized, with typical Romantic-era yearning in the second movement and a pleasantly humorous interchange between upper and lower strings in the third. A slight work, it is nevertheless quite an attractive one; and, like the concerto, makes a listener wonder how Karłowicz might have developed as a composer had he not died in an avalanche while skiing.
The works on Ray Chen’s debut CD are better known than those of Lyapunov and Karłowicz, and the CD is designed as a display opportunity for the young violinist rather than a disc focused on the music for its own sake. This is nevertheless a meatier debut release than acclaimed young violinists typically receive. Chen, a 22-year-old Taiwan native, won both the Queen Elisabeth Competition (in 2009) and the Yehudi Menuhin Competition (in 2008), and a program designed to showcase his virtuoso technique would be the likely outcome of those early successes. But there is greater depth to this release than one might expect, especially in the inclusion of César Franck’s only violin sonata. This is a late work and a deep one, showing that Franck – a pianist – had a natural affinity for the violin, at least when he could create a work with the assistance of such a virtuoso as Eugène Ysaÿe. Mellow, emotionally committed and interesting in its balance of violin and piano – which Franck treats as equals – the sonata is a work of considerable depth, and it is to Chen’s credit that he plays it with warmth, attentiveness and considerable depth of feeling. It is the high point of a CD that indicates the potential for this violinist to move beyond the disc’s title, “Ray Chen: Virtuoso.” The remaining works here are fine, but of lesser interest. The best of them is Wieniawski’s Variations on an Original Theme, which fully exploits the violin’s (and violinist’s) technical capabilities while also having something meaty about it – in contrast to the composer’s familiar Légende, which is one-dimensional and attractive, but to which Chen brings nothing special. Nor is there anything outstanding about Chen’s way with the Bach and Tartini works here – his playing is quite fine, even admirable, but lacks any real affinity for Baroque style and the Baroque form of expressiveness. Still, Chen may well grow into that type of sensitivity – he certainly shows enough sense of involvement in the Franck and Wieniawski works. And Noreen Polera makes a fine accompanist for Chen: in the forefront when she should be, well balanced in the Franck, but willing to assume a subsidiary role as needed to give Chen the prominence this program invites.
If the violin is the most prominent solo string instrument, its opposite, surely, is the double bass, for which front-and-center roles are very few indeed. Franz Anton Hoffmeister (1754-1812) was one of the few composers before Bottesini to give the bass a chance to show its full capabilities. Hoffmeister’s Double Bass Quartets do this by simply replacing the first violin with a bass – and expecting the bassist to lead the quartet, just as a violinist usually would. This results in works that initially sound top-heavy but whose sonic world soon seems simply like an alternative to that of the traditional string quartet, with somewhat more “oomph” but little sense of being either lumbering or dragged down by the weight of the lead instrument. The other major change that Hoffmeister makes in his quartets involves the cello, which is relegated to a singularly minor role, most likely to avoid having a second low string instrument counter the effects of the bass to any significant degree. Unfortunately, the novelty of Hoffmeister’s quartets wears off quickly, since the music itself is foursquare and not especially distinguished – it is solid stuff, but not very inspired. The fact that all three quartets on the new Naxos CD (which is a re-release of performances recorded as long ago as 1980 and 1984) are in the same key, D major, reinforces the monotony of the music. Everything is quite well played, but any way you look at it, Hoffmeister is a minor composer. Not so Schubert: the arrangement for double bass of his Arpeggione Sonata, which these days is usually played on viola or cello, is quite well done. Norbert Duka not only did the arrangement but also produces in the performance a sound of considerable subtlety, lovely tone quality and (especially in the Adagio) great emotional warmth. This is both the finest music on the CD and the most interesting interpretation – listeners will have to decide whether the excellent Schubert, added to the novelty of the Hoffmeister works, will provide enough reason to own the disc.