July 23, 2020


Dvořák: Four Romantic Pieces, Op. 75; Mozart: Violin Sonata No. 26, K. 378; Christian Asplund: One Eternal Round for two violins; Neil Thornock: A Crust of Azure for violin and piano. Alexander Woods and Aubrey Smith Woods, violins; Rex Woods, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

     It is a constant problem for producers and musicians trying to interest audiences in contemporary music: how to get them to listen, even once, to something they have never heard before? The vast majority of contemporary classical works are fortunate to receive a single performance – additional ones are extremely unlikely. But a very few may intrigue listeners enough on first hearing to be programmed again, in concert or recital, or in recorded form. Of course, finding those very few requires getting audiences to listen to a lot of pieces that may possibly appeal enough to merit additional hearings; and that comes back to the problem of how to get people interested in works for the first time. One common method that has proved reasonably successful is to sandwich new music between well-known, more-familiar pieces: the notion is that if people come for what they have heard before, they will at least give a fair hearing to what they have not. When it comes to recordings, the “sandwich” approach is a bit different, becoming more a matter of “sprinkling” by mixing better-known and less-known works on the same CD, relying on the likelihood that someone who wants to hear any of the music on the disc will likely listen to all of it. That is the approach on a new MSR Classics recording featuring violin sonatas by Dvořák and Mozart, plus world première recordings of pieces by Christian Asplund (born 1964) and Neil Thornock (born 1977).

     The question here is not whether the Asplund and Thornock works measure up to those by Dvořák and Mozart – they do not – but whether, on their own terms, they are worth hearing and perhaps even hearing repeatedly. Asplund’s dates to 2015 and is for two violins (Alexander Woods and Aubrey Smith Woods). It opens as if it is going to be a kind of dissonant tribute to or imitation of Bach, gradually becomes more animated and equally dissonant (even screechy), and then turns into one of those instruments-chasing-each-other pieces that lie somewhere between canon and simple repetitiveness. The rather limited sonority of two identical instruments gives One Eternal Round a somewhat monotonous sonic palate, which Asplund makes little attempt to enliven. And the 10-minute work slips repeatedly into a kind of ongoing ostinato that by the end becomes simply boring, as if it has degenerated into a fingering exercise that abruptly stops. The piece may be worthwhile for violinists seeking something new and different to perform, but it is unlikely to be of much interest to most listeners.

     Thornock’s piece, from 2013, is in three movements, and at 28-and-a-half minutes is the longest work on the CD. There is considerably more to it than there is to Asplund’s work. The opening movement, “Tremulous Whirl,” has dramatic intensity that dips occasionally into lyricism and that uses consonant and dissonant elements for generally well-placed contrasts. The second movement, “Refraction of Sky,” juxtaposes Alexander Woods’ violin with Rex Woods’ piano in some interesting ways, taking the violin to its highest range and keeping much of the piano part high as well, but including dips into both instruments’ lower ranges that provide effective contrasting passages. The movement does meander and is essentially themeless, however, with the result that by the time half its 10-minute length is over, listeners may wonder if it is going anywhere. It is not: it is something of an exercise in 21st-century Impressionism, although it does end with more speed, more verve and more-emphatic dissonance than it exhibits earlier. The finale, poetically if oddly called “Lavender Shroud,” makes more use of the violin’s lower register and allows a certain wistfulness and songfulness to creep into the material. The passages with a “yearning” sound are somewhat overdone, to the point of triteness, and when the violin does climb to high notes and harmonics, it tends to do so for effect – but not very effectively in communicative terms. The very end of the work has a certain degree of dark resignation about it in the violin, but the piano part simply disappears into irrelevance. A Crust of Azure contains enough intriguing material to keep listeners attentive most of the time, although it does go on a bit longer than its content justifies and seems, as a whole, to be less than the sum of its parts.

     Neither of the contemporary pieces on this disc engages listeners with anything approaching the warmth and smoothness of the Dvořák or the poise, elegance and lyrical beauty of the Mozart. But certainly the performances of Dvořák’s Op. 75 and Mozart’s K. 378 are good enough to pull an audience into the entire CD. The first of the four short Dvořák pieces is beautifully songful and heart-tuggingly wistful; the second is rhythmically pointed, strikingly dancelike, and with excellent double-stopping on the violin; the third is sweet, slightly yearning, and highly expressive. All three of these pieces are marked with forms of Allegro: moderato, maestoso, and appassionato, respectively. Dvořák reserves the slow pacing in Four Romantic Pieces for the final Larghetto, which is the longest piece of the four. Here Alexander Woods and Rex Woods fully engage their Romantic sensibilities in a highly expressive conclusion.

     In the Mozart sonata, the give-and-take between violin and piano is balanced to far more perfection than in the works by Dvořák or Thornock. The first movement unfolds with a kind of pleasant banter that has some pastoral overtones. The second seeks beauty rather than depth – it is marked Andantino sostenuto e cantabile – and keeps the instruments so perfectly attuned to each other that they almost sound like longtime lovers who can pick up and finish each other’s sentences. The bright final Rondeau is led by the piano, echoed by the violin, and quickly becomes an essay in perfection of thematic choice, balance and development.

     It is scarcely a surprise that neither Asplund’s piece nor Thornock’s is able to come close to the pleasures of the Dvořák and Mozart works. Inevitably, the sequence of the disc makes the contrasts and limitations of the contemporary works quite clear: Dvořák is followed by Asplund, then Mozart, and finally Thornock. But the purpose of a CD such as this one is not to suggest that the performers have discovered modern composers on the level of a Dvořák or a Mozart. It is simply to use the exceptionally high quality of the older, better-known works to draw in an audience that will at least pay attention to the newer material and give it a chance to be heard – preferably more than once. Neither contemporary piece here is by any means an undiscovered masterpiece, but both are worthy of listeners’ time. The unanswerable question is how much of that time these works will be given even after listeners, drawn in by the first-rate Dvořák and Mozart performances, give a first hearing to the pieces from the 21st century.

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