November 21, 2012
(++++) THE VARIEGATED VIOLIN
Stravinsky: Violin Concerto; Circus Polka; Frank Martin: Violin Concerto; Honegger: Pacific 231; Rugby. Baiba Skride, violin; BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Thierry Fischer. Orfeo. $22.99.
Bartók: Violin Concerto No. 2; Eötvös: Seven; Ligeti: Violin Concerto. Patricia Kopatchinskaja, violin; Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra and Ensemble Modern conducted by Peter Eötvös. Naïve. $16.99 (2 CDs).
Ignatz Waghalter: Violin Concerto; Rhapsodie for Violin and Orchestra; Sonata for Violin and Piano; Idyll for Violin and Piano; Geständnis (Confession). Irmina Trynkos, violin; Giorgi Latsabidze, piano; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Alexander Walker. Naxos. $9.99.
Mozart: Sonatas for Piano and Violin in B-flat, K. 454; G, K. 379 (373a); and A, K. 526. Lars Vogt, piano; Christian Tetzlaff, violin. Ondine. $16.99.
The most-familiar works in the violin canon are not enough anymore. No matter how much enjoyment they provide, the best-known violin concertos and other violin pieces are no longer sufficient to keep performers satisfied – and at least some audiences are ready for something different, too. The Orfeo CD featuring Baiba Skride and Thierry Fischer is a salutary experience, a wonderful amalgamation of music that is very well played and surprisingly complementary even though, on the surface, that would not seem to be the case. Skride here tackles two very different 20th-century violin concertos that take violin and orchestra in distinct directions. The Stravinsky is outgoing and dramatic, its four movements’ designations – “Toccata,” “Aria I,” “Aria II” and “Capriccio” – showing just how far beyond the traditional concerto form Stravinsky was moving in this work. Skride plays it with aplomb, and Fischer keeps the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in a partnership rather than backup role, with the result being a strong and winning performance. Then, intelligently, the CD offers an interlude of sorts through Honegger’s well-known Pacific 231 and less-known Rugby, short orchestral pictures of modern technology and life in which the composer mixes representational elements with ironic ones. And then Skride takes on the concerto by the underrated Swiss composer Frank Martin (1890-1974), which seems on the surface to be the antithesis of Stravinsky’s, being in three movements with entirely traditional tempo designations. But the contrast between the concertos, while real enough, is not what it first seems to be. The difference is more in atmosphere and sonority than in structure, with Martin’s concerto – which is one-third longer than Stravinsky’s compact one – being primarily introverted: the words tranquillo and molto moderato, which appear as part of the tempo markings of the first two movements, are entirely apt. Yet Martin eventually brings the work around to blazing brightness in the final Presto, and Skride does a wonderful job of making this seem a natural consequence of what has come before rather than a tacked-on change. Fischer again provides excellent accompaniment – and then offers, as an encore to the CD, Stravinsky’s bright Circus Polka, which somehow seems to sum everything up rather neatly. The only real oddity of this CD is its high price – and it is not even an SACD recording.
In contrast, the two-CD Naïve set featuring Patricia Kopatchinskaja is a bargain, but here the musical material is somewhat uneven. The entire set is a personal expression of sorts for composer/conductor Peter Eötvös, who was born in the Transylvania region of Hungary, which is now part of Romania but retains strong Hungarian roots and identification. Thus, Eötvös’ own concerto, Seven, is combined here with the concerto by Ligeti, who was also born in Transylvania, and that of Bartók, who came from a small Banatian town that is also now within Romania’s borders. The geopolitical connections are clear, and thus so is the emotional underpinning of this recording; but the musical connections have less clarity. Thus, although Bartók was a major influence on Ligeti, this was true only in Ligeti’s early work, and Ligeti’s violin concerto is a late piece, employing techniques, such as scordatura tuning, that Ligeti came to on his own. The Eötvös concerto includes and to some extent is built around cadenzas – four of them – that set it apart from either of the other works heard here. The musical language of all these pieces is acerbic, at times even bitter, but their techniques and contexts are very different. For example, regarding the second theme of the first movement of his Violin Concerto No. 2, Bartók was quoted as saying that he "wanted to show Schoenberg that one can use all twelve tones and still remain tonal.” But tonality and the whole 12-tone argument are quite far from the thinking of Eötvös and Ligeti in their pieces heard here. Kopatchinskaja plays all the works with strength and intensity, and Eötvös, who is known as much for conducting as for composing, manages the orchestras (Ensemble Modern in his own piece, the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra in the other two) with flair and style – and clearly shows the emotional connection that he feels to all these pieces, not just his own. But the music is not as well-connected as its geographical background would seem to indicate; the Bartók concerto grabs and holds listeners’ interest more effectively than do the other two works. This (+++) set is intriguing rather than gripping, a most interesting concept that does not quite hold up on a strictly musical basis.
Like Eötvös, the now nearly forgotten Ignatz Waghalter (1881-1949) was both conductor and composer. Although he was born in the same year as Bartók, Waghalter never moved significantly beyond Romantic sensibility, creating melodic, well-constructed music that broke little new ground. His violin concerto, which dates to 1911, stands in strong contrast to those of composers such as Bartók and Ligeti, being in the traditional three movements and filled with overflowing melodies and Romantic (or post-Romantic) emotions. In fact, some Waghalter tunes sound as if they belong in operetta, and he was indeed a composer of operettas as well as operas – and of film music as well. For the violinist, Waghalter’s concerto lies well on the instrument and presents plenty of opportunities for display and emotional involvement – it is a highly attractive, rather Brahmsian work, if not, ultimately, a compelling one. The other major piece on the new Naxos CD of Waghalter’s music is a violin-and-piano sonata for which Waghalter won the prestigious Mendelssohn Prize in 1902, at the age of 21. Again, this is a classically structured work with Romantic sensibilities, the violin and piano parts being nicely balanced and the sensibilities warm and winning. The (+++) CD also includes the songful Rhapsodie for Violin and Orchestra and two short pieces – Idyll and Geständnis – that confirm Waghalter’s melodic gifts while also making it clear why his music faded rather quickly from consciousness at a time when composers and, to some extent, audiences were attuned to more-modern sounds, structures and sensibilities.
After all the forays into the violin literature of the 20th century, it can feel like a breath of clear air to return to the 18th, and specifically to the eternal freshness of Mozart, who wrote 36 violin sonatas (although three exist only as fragments and 16 are considered juvenilia – including six in which a flute can be used instead of a violin). The three offered in an Ondine recording by longtime chamber-music partners Lars Vogt and Christian Tetzlaff are numbers 32, 27 and 35, with the fragmentary sonatas considered as whole works. These pieces are here designated as being for piano and violin, not violin and piano, which is interesting in light of Mozart’s clear preference for the piano over the violin in concerto composition and in his own performances. But unlike some later sonatas – Beethoven’s, for example – these are not ones in which the piano overwhelms the violin or reduces it to secondary status. K. 379 (373a) is a pleasant enough work, stylish and filled with ingratiating melodies. But K. 454 and K. 526 are on a higher plane, being the first and third of the composer’s last great set of violin sonatas (the very last one that he wrote is more of a sonatina). K. 454 is especially careful to balance the two instruments equally – Mozart wrote it for a violin virtuoso named Regina Strinasacchi and performed it with her – and offers contrasts between its particularly slow Largo opening and some much more playful moments, all of which Vogt and Tetzlaff handle with poise and elegance. K. 526, in which the instruments are again carefully balanced, features a second movement with an unusually extended middle section, giving the Andante more weight than its tempo indication might otherwise indicate. Again, both performers sound thoroughly at home in the music and allow it a natural, even and altogether pleasant flow, resulting in a (++++) CD in which both the excellence of the music and the fine playing provide reasons for listening to the disc again and again.