April 02, 2020


Schubert: Sonatas for Violin and Piano (complete)—in D, D. 384; A minor, D. 385; and G minor, D. 408. Zachary Carrettin, violin; Mina Gajić, piano. Sono Luminus. $13.99.

Beethoven: Violin Sonata No. 9, “Kreutzer”; Franck: Sonata in A for Violin and Piano; Kreisler: Schön Rosmarin. Lara St. John, violin; Matt Herskowitz, piano. Ancalagon. $17.

Eugène Ysaÿe: Six Sonatas for Solo Violin. Thomas Bowes, violin. Navona. $14.99.

     Charmingly but inaccurately designated “sonatinas” on a wonderful new Sono Luminus recording, Schubert’s three Op. 137 sonatas (D. 384, 385 and 408) get some of the loveliest and most-knowing performances in years from Zachary Carrettin and Mina Gajić. The works were actually labeled as “sonatinas” after Schubert’s death, probably because they are youthful works that are shorter than the composer’s later violin-and-piano pieces. But all works by Schubert are youthful – it is impossible to forget that he died at 31 – and he himself gave these pieces a much more accurate label: “Sonatas for piano with violin accompaniment.” That is a clue for performers to how the composer himself saw the instrumental balance in these beautiful and often surprisingly trenchant pieces. Carrettin and Gajić not only get the relationship between the instruments exactly right but also benefit enormously from their decision to play the pieces as Schubert himself would have heard them, on period instruments whose sound (especially that of the piano) is very different from what is heard on other recordings of these works. No matter how fine those other versions may be, and some are very fine indeed, these are superior from a sheer sonic standpoint – and provide tremendous insight into how Schubert saw and heard the conversational elements of the sonatas. Gajić plays an 1835 Érard piano with a fine, rich sound and a tone determined in large part by its parallel stringing and damper placement below the strings. Carrettin plays on a relatively new, mid-20th-century violin, but one specifically set up to perform music of Schubert’s time and strung with gut strings – always a key to historically accurate sound for Schubert’s era. The details of instrumental design may be technical, but the effect of using these instruments is not: the mixture of joie de vivre with operatic intensity and sections of early-Romantic emotionalism comes through so well that even listeners already familiar with these pieces will hear them anew in this recording. It is the works’ variegated nature that is most evident here, and if that means the pieces sometimes meander and occasionally seem derivative of Mozart, Haydn and even Beethoven – well, to that extent, these are youthful pieces, ones in which Schubert was still developing his own style. The first and most-classical sonata, the only one in a major key and the only one in three movements, is performed by Gajić and Carrettin almost as an overture to the two minor-key, four-movement works. It is poised, elegant and rather sweet. As such, it contrasts very strongly indeed with the comparatively formidable A minor sonata, whose emotions seem to fly in all directions (sometimes all at once) even as Schubert expresses himself with gorgeously songful elements and lyricism that never quite balances the agitation. The performance here has the feeling of spontaneity that only careful practice and long-term familiarity can produce. And the G minor sonata is just as passionate and committed, featuring everything from quicksilver, multifaceted development to wistfulness that never quite takes hold firmly enough to overcome the overall unsettled, even turbulent mood. These are wonderful works whose considerable depths certainly belie the “sonatina” designation and whose structure and emotional heft Gajić and Carrettin explore with remarkable sensitivity and thoroughness – and with instrumental sound that is, in and of itself, a real joy to hear.

     The joys are equal but different on an exceptionally well-played recording of familiar violin-and-piano music by Beethoven and Franck on the Ancalagon label. Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz here offer a Franck sonata that is suitably impassioned and turns up the emotional temperature to a high degree – and a Beethoven “Kreutzer” sonata with a more-unusual approach. The “Kreutzer” was first played by Beethoven himself and violinist George Bridgetower, who was of mixed race (African and European) and whose genetic heritage prompted Beethoven to dedicate the sonata to him with several amusingly off-kilter references to “mulatto” (in fact, Beethoven called the work “Sonata mulattica”). Clearly Beethoven had tremendous respect for Bridgetower’s performing prowess, since this sonata is longer and considerably more difficult and emotionally involving than his earlier ones. But after the two men had a falling-out, Beethoven redid the dedication, naming then-famed violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer as dedicatee – except that Kreutzer hated the piece and refused to play it. The work has fared much better over the centuries that it did in its early days, but it has also become rather standardized in interpretation as it has settled into the standard repertoire. St. John and Herskowitz seem determined to attack the piece anew, and at times, “attack” is the right word, given the intensity with which the two approach the music. There is little attempt in this performance to have the music flow in a tightly organized fashion: instead, St. John and Herskowitz revel in the differences among the sections of the three movements. The first movement has the greatest depth, and this performance handles it as a proto-Romantic piece, accentuating both of its tempo markings: Adagio sostenuto followed by Presto. The strength and dynamism of this movement almost make the much more placid second movement’s set of variations a letdown, but St. John and Herskowitz prevent that by ensuring that the variations sound genuinely different, with particular focus on the comparatively somber final one. They then dash blithely through the finale, another Presto, with a gaiety that sometimes borders on the frantic, capping a very well-thought-out performance. By contrast, the Franck, although equally well-played, is rather straightforward. This is a moving work, highly familiar to performers and audiences alike, and a piece in which the pianist is often in the forefront and faces as many technical difficulties as does the violinist. But nothing here sounds as if it challenges the technical skill of Herskowitz – or St. John – as they once again, as in the Beethoven, look mainly to the contrasts among and within the movements to heighten the piece’s dramatic impact. In particular, the sweet and gentle opening Allegretto ben moderato comes across more or less as an introduction to the Allegro that follows and that has intensity and passion to spare. The third movement’s free-form design is then suitably contrasted with the much more tightly structured finale, which here ends with a feeling of genuine uplift. And at the CD’s conclusion, as if to moderate the temperature of things a bit, St. John and Herskowitz offer the little gem of Fritz Kreisler’s popular encore, Schön Rosmarin, tingeing its wistfulness with just a hint of melancholy. This is a CD for listeners willing to let their emotions be pulled hither and yon by performers who are unusually adept at doing just that.

     The Franck sonata was written as a wedding gift for Eugène Ysaÿe, who subsequently championed it for decades, repaying Franck’s generosity by becoming largely responsible for Franck’s increasing (although posthumous) reputation as a composer. Ysaÿe himself was a composer as well as a performer, and his Six Sonatas for Solo Violin of 1923 effectively show him in both roles. These six works, which are Ysaÿe’s Op. 27, are designed to characterize and encapsulate other violinists of the time. But what gives them enduring interest is the way they show as much about the composer as about the people being musically portrayed. The first is dedicated to Joseph Szigeti, the second (“Obsession”) to Jacques Thibaud, the third (“Ballade”) to Georges Enescu, the fourth to Fritz Kreisler, the fifth to Mathieu Crickboom, and the sixth to Manuel Quiroga. Ysaÿe was inspired to write the sonatas after hearing a Bach solo-violin sonata played by Szigeti, and Bach’s spirit permeates the works: No. 2, for example, directly quotes the start of the Prelude from Bach’s Partita No. 3 for solo violin in the first movement – and then moves on to a siciliano, a sarabande and a finale quoting the Dies Irae from the Catholic Mass for the Dead. Yet the sonatas combine Bach’s influence with the style of the time in which Ysaÿe composed them: they are filled with dissonance, and use techniques such as quarter tones and whole-tone scales. Furthermore, as the dedications to Ysaÿe’s contemporary virtuosi make clear, the works are technically difficult and designed in some ways to highlight the particular strengths of the performers whose names they bear. All this is historically interesting, but for contemporary listeners, who are rather unlikely to be familiar with all the violinists whose names the sonatas bear and highly unlikely to know the specificities and eccentricities of each virtuoso’s performing style, what matters is how well the sonatas work as pure music, not as mere technical displays or dedicatory pieces. Thomas Bowes’ new recording of the sonatas for Navona is a highly successful one precisely because, while Bowes’ virtuosity is quite clear, he puts it at the service of the musicality of the pieces and of what they have to communicate beyond the realm of technique. Intriguingly, Bowes plays the sonatas is an order he chooses, not the one given by Ysaÿe: first No. 6, then Nos. 1, 4, 3, 2 and 5. The result is that Bowes “takes ownership,” in a sense, of this set of pieces, turning them into a recital that showcases musical elements in a sequence that Bowes believes most effective. Placing the sixth sonata at the start means the group begins with a habanera, then moves to two multi-movement works (No. 1 is in four movements, No. 4 in three), then places the single-movement Enescu-dedicated work as a kind of palate cleanser, and then concludes with two multi-movement pieces (No. 2 in four movements and No. 5 in two). The result is unusual and, if certainly atypical, convincing on its own terms; and Bowes’ very fine playing shines through as he highlights not only the Bachian and 1920s elements of the sonatas but also the sheer bravura present, in various guises, throughout the set. This is a distinctly different way of hearing the Ysaÿe sonatas, and, as a result, it may not be a listener’s first choice despite the excellence of the performance. But it will be a very interesting addition to the collection of anyone who is already familiar with these works in the order in which they are traditionally played and recorded.

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