May 07, 2015
(++++) HOW STRINGS COMMUNICATE
Beethoven: Violin Concerto; Romances Nos. 1 and 2. Christian Tetzlaff, violin; Tonhalle Orchestra Zürich conducted by David Zinman. Brilliant Classics. $7.99.
Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 3 and 5. Christoph Eschenbach, piano; London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hans Werner Henze (No. 3); Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Seiji Ozawa (No. 5). PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).
Enescu: Complete Works for Violin and Piano, Volume 2. Axel Strauss, violin; Ilya Poletaev, piano. Naxos. $12.99.
Dialogus: Music for Solo Violin. Hlíf Sigurjónsdóttir, violin. MSR Classics. $12.95.
The communicative power of the violin shows not only through its use as the dominant instrument in symphony orchestras but also through its various solo incarnations, alone or in combination. For example, using the concerto form to set a single violin against an orchestra allows a wide variety of expressive approaches, and some can be surprising even when the concerto is as well-known as Beethoven’s. In a Brilliant Classics re-release of a performance from 2005, Christian Tetzlaff looks at the concerto from some unusual angles, keeping it upbeat and almost lighthearted throughout – a very different approach from the super-serious one frequently used for this music. Tetzlaff thus plants the concerto more firmly in the 18th century than the 19th, a valid approach despite the work’s date of 1806. Tetzlaff, very well supported by the Tonhalle Orchestra Zürich under David Zinman, chooses moderate tempos throughout and avoids imposing any grandeur or heaven-storming elements on a work that is actually one of Beethoven’s most upbeat. The violin here moves within as well as above and beyond the orchestra, and there is a very pleasant feeling of ensemble cooperation rather than the competitiveness that later concertos were to invite and even demand. Tetzlaff also does one highly unusual thing here: instead of using the usual first-movement cadenza (by Fritz Kreisler), he takes the cadenza written by Beethoven for piano when the composer recast the concerto for piano and orchestra – and plays it on the violin. This is in itself a very unusual cadenza, featuring a timpani accompaniment for the soloist, and hearing it played on the violin is genuinely strange. It is not wrong so much as highly unfamiliar and surprising. Beethoven indisputably wrote this cadenza, but just as indisputably intended it to be played on piano. Hearing it as Tetzlaff performs it certainly transforms this well-known violin concerto into something different and surprising, if not, it must be said, totally convincing. However, as a way of bringing a breath of fresh air to a work that can sometimes seem overly familiar, Tetzlaff’s choice of this cadenza is a fascinating one. Soloist and orchestra offer the two Romances as encores of sorts for the concerto, and both are played with taste, refinement and the same sort of delicacy and care that Tetzlaff and Zinman bring to the concerto – these are pleasant rather than highly significant pieces, and both sound very lovely indeed in these readings.
The piano is, after all, itself a kind of stringed instrument, which makes it tempting to think of all the ways in which it differs from the violin. Since its strings produce their sound by being struck rather than bowed, the piano is properly designated as percussion, and there is a constant battle between pianists and pianos when it comes to bringing forth delicate and legato passages from an instrument that, especially in its modern incarnation, seems to want to sound forth with all the percussive power in its possession. In fact, Beethoven’s brilliance in the first-movement cadenza of the piano version of his violin concerto lies largely in the way he combines two forms of percussion: piano and timpani. Beethoven did not write for a modern 11-octave concert grand – they did not exist in his time – and that makes his understanding of the potential of his era’s five-to-six-octave pianos all the more remarkable. His Piano Concertos Nos. 3 and 5 show this in different ways. The PentaTone SACD featuring Christoph Eschenbach (who is nowadays better known as a conductor) is, like the Violin Concerto featuring Tetzlaff, a re-release: the original dates to 1973 and was recorded in quadraphonic sound, an ahead-of-its-time system that never really caught on but that comes across particularly well when reprocessed using modern remastering techniques. Eschenbach himself is a big plus on this CD, but the performances as a whole are only so-so. Concerto No. 3, which was recorded in 1971, is actually flabby: conductor Hans Werner Henze (far better known, and far better, as a composer than a podium leader) overdoes the work’s lyricism at every opportunity, slowing things down so much that the work’s considerable forward momentum simply disappears. The second movement is especially mischaracterized and almost painful to hear – despite the excellent sound of the orchestra. Eschenbach must have agreed to this misguided interpretation; that fact undermines the quality of his playing. On the other hand, he manages the “Emperor” concerto with great aplomb, and Seiji Ozawa, a frequently overblown and overly self-important conductor, is on his best behavior here with a Boston Symphony whose richness of tone and evenness of sectional balance are first-rate. This 1973 reading is somewhat on the Romantic side, especially in the melancholy second movement, but never to such an extent as to seem implausible for a concerto written between 1809 and 1811. As a whole, this is a (+++) release with one very-high-level performance and one that is simply misshapen.
The very different strings of the violin and piano have long attracted composers for their ability to establish a special kind of emotional connection between the instruments. George Enescu, for example, was violin-and-piano-focused from an almost unbelievably early age. His earliest work of any length, Romanian Land, is for violin and piano and was written, as the manuscript says, when Enescu was “five and a quarter.” Even earlier, very short pieces were also for violin and piano. Clearly Enescu (1881-1955), who was to become a brilliant violinist himself, latched on at the earliest imaginable time to the emotive power of the violin and piano. It is thus no surprise that the second volume of Naxos’ (++++) collection of his complete violin-and-piano works includes pieces written when he was as young as 14 and as old as 70. The earliest works here are Tarantella (1895); Ballade, Op. 4a (1895-96); Aubade (1899/1903); and Violin Sonata No. 1, Op. 2 (1897). The first three of these are small pieces that nicely balance the two instruments, although the unpublished Tarantella also has some characteristics of a virtuoso violin showpiece. The sonata, on the other hand, is a substantial work in three movements that flow into each other in Lisztian style. It certainly shows Brahmsian influence in the interplay of the violin and piano, and pays homage to Beethoven in its overall sound and forward drive. Yet it is evidence that already, at age 16, Enescu had learned how to synthesize material from the past and have it emerge in his own style. The work’s polyphony is particularly noteworthy, showing a sure hand in blending multiple textural elements into an overall well-structured, highly involving sound. The later music on this CD is even more assured but scarcely more emotive. The very brief Hora Unirii (1917) – the title is that of an 1856 poem and is more or less the Romanian national motto – is simple and straightforward. The almost equally short Andantino malinconico (1951) is hauntingly expressive. And the series of late miniatures called Impressions d’enfance, Op. 28 (1940) will surely remind some listeners of Schumann’s Kinderszenen, if only because of the great contrast between the works. Enescu’s 10 scenes are extremely personal: he wrote the music when he was in declining health and in self-imposed exile because of the start of World War II. Several of these reminiscences are very fleeting: two, A Cricket and the very imaginative Wind in the Chimney, last barely 20 seconds apiece. The others range from the opening The Fiddler, for solo violin and evocative of a Moldavian street singer, to the concluding Sunrise, which seems to pull composer and listener alike not only into a new day but also toward an unknown future. This is Enescu’s most-complex late duo work, requiring just the sort of attentiveness to detail that it receives from Axel Strauss and Ilya Poletaev as the climax of a CD that is impressive for its playing and even more so for the imaginative and wide-ranging ways in which the composer uses the two instruments.
The purest of all expressions of the violin, however, comes when the instrument plays unaccompanied – a feat that is notoriously difficult to bring off successfully, especially with the knowledge that Bach did so at an astonishingly high level with his Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, BWV 1001-1006. The impossibility of matching these works has certainly not stopped innumerable composers from trying, through the years, to produce solo-violin music of substantial interest. That sometimes quixotic quest continues today, and Hlíf Sigurjónsdóttir plays six examples of ways in which contemporary composers have undertaken it on a new MSR Classics CD. Written between 1983 and 2012, these pieces all show an understanding of the violin’s technical and expressive capabilities, and all make suitable demands of the soloist without being display pieces for their own sake – indeed, several lean far more to the contemplative side than to that of virtuosity. And it is interesting that the CD is called Dialogus, since it would seem to be more monologue than dialogue – except that Sigurjónsdóttir is clearly intending to be in a musical dialogue with the listener. The title may also refer to performer-composer dialogue, since several of these pieces – all of which are world première recordings – were dedicated to her. The music is varied and sometimes clever, with the two longest works here – both of them collections of comparatively short movements – being the most intricate and involving. Merrill Clark’s The Sorceress/Sigurjónsdóttir Sonata (2010) is as closely tied to the performer as a work can be, fully showcasing her expressive and virtuosic capabilities. It is akin to Bach’s solo-violin works as well, concluding with a very extended Ciaconna that is nearly as long as the other four movements put together and that quite clearly recalls the magnificent Chaconne that caps Bach’s Partita No. 2. It does Clark no discredit to note that he aims higher here than is perhaps wise, since his design invites inevitable comparisons that are not to his work’s benefit. Nevertheless, this movement makes a fitting capstone to an extended solo-violin piece that is impressive in many ways. More accessible and somewhat less dry, Winter Trees (1983) by Jónas Tómasson seeks to portray, in its four movements, good, sad and mad trees – the listener gets to figure out just what the adjectives mean – and then, in the finale, simply quiet… (with the ellipsis). The remaining four works here are expressive in their own ways and generally lean toward thoughtfulness rather than display for its own sake. They are From My Home (2012) by Rúna Ingimundar; Meditation (1996) by Karólína Eiríksdóttir, which is particularly deeply felt; Kurìe (2012) by Hróđmar Ingi Sigurbjörnsson; and Variations on Victimae Paschali Laudes (1987) by Alfred Felder. It is inevitable in all-contemporary discs like this one that most listeners will find some elements of greater interest than others; and indeed, the composers do not all have especially distinctive styles, even though all write more than adequately for solo violin and all are treated with equal care and attentiveness in Sigurjónsdóttir’s performances. This is a (+++) recording that offers listeners interested in modern solo-violin music a chance to hear some of it that has not been recorded before performed with considerable skill by a soloist who knows how to extract what emotive elements the pieces contain. It is also a disc best heard one piece at a time, to allow listener to absorb what compositional differences there are among the composers and to avoid having the works seem collectively like a pale attempt to match the ones that Bach created 300 years ago.