October 08, 2020


Mozart: Violin Concertos Nos. 1-5; Adagio for Violin and Orchestra, K. 261; Rondo for Violin and Orchestra, K. 269; Rondo for Violin and Orchestra, K. 373. Baiba Skride, violin; Swedish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Eivind Aadland. Orfeo. $24.99 (2 CDs).

Szymanowski: Sonata for Violin and Piano, Op. 9; Andrzrej Panufnik: Piano Trio, Op. 1; Grażyna Bacewīcz: Sonata No. 4 for Violin and Piano. Huberman Duo and Huberman Piano Trio (Magdalena Ziarkowska-Kołacka, violin; Sergei Rysanov, cello; Barbara Karaśkiewicz, piano). Divine Art. $18.99.

     There is something pert and perky about the way Baiba Skride handles the cycle of Mozart Violin Concertos, something wholly in keeping with the spirit of music that Mozart wrote mostly as a teenager. Skride’s touch is quite light and her willingness to take the music at considerable speed, as in (for example) the final Presto of Concerto No. 1, lends a fleet feeling to the material that in no way trivializes it but allows it to flow joyfully and without any of the introspection that Mozart was later to employ in his concertos (the piano ones) to such telling effect. The violin concertos are elegant trifles in Skride’s hands – or perhaps not quite trifles, but divertissements that flow constantly with beauty and ease and allow the soloist some chances to display virtuosity but none to over-extend herself or over-deepen the musical communication. Skride’s cadenzas (Mozart did not leave any of his own) are very much in this spirit: they are brief, true to the movements within which they appear, and virtuosic – but not to an extent that would lead to thinking of them as “display pieces.” This is not a period-instrument performance, and some of the brightness of the readings surely comes from the higher tuning employed in modern practice; but in spirit, the readings seem very much in keeping with the18th century. Skride plays a superb Stradivarius that has absolute evenness of tone throughout its range, and the three dozen members of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra complement her in truly wonderful fashion: Eivind Aadland and the engineers of this Orfeo release achieve absolutely perfect balance between soloist and ensemble, with precise miking that brings complete clarity to every instrument and allows Skride to spend most of her time as primus inter pares, first among equals. There is almost a feeling of the Baroque concerto grosso in the first two concertos, with the violin’s increasing prominence, starting with Concerto No. 3, coming across as a significant and very logical development. Skride emphasizes this change by altering the form of her cadenzas beginning with the first movement of No. 3: they become somewhat more extended and complex. But not too much so – this is a subtle change, as indeed is the overall development of the concertos themselves. And there is never any doubt that these are youthful works, largely untroubled and optimistic, designed for listeners’ pleasure as well as for Mozart’s own enjoyment in performing them. Indeed, both Skride and Aadland, although certainly serious in their approach to the material, bring a combination of warmth and relaxation to the music that makes the concertos seem like works performed by good friends for an audience of colleagues and close acquaintances. It is the kind of music-making encountered more often in chamber-music recitals than in concertos and other orchestral works, and it makes the concertos into a truly shared experience between performers and listeners. This is especially evident in the movements that contain surprising contrasting sections, the finales of Nos. 3 and 5: Skride and Aadland are genuinely playful in the suddenly appearing Andante in the last movement of No. 3, and they bring out the strong contrast between the Alla turca section of the conclusion of No. 5 and the remainder of the movement. The brightly bouncing cadenza in the first movement of No. 4 is another highlight. Actually, there are highlights aplenty throughout this recording – not only in the concertos themselves but also in the three additional single-movement works: K. 261 is an alternative slow movement for Concerto No. 5, K. 269 is an alternative finale for No. 1, and K. 373 is Mozart’s last work for violin and orchestra – even though it dates only to 1781, when the composer was 25. All in all, the verve, balance, careful phrasing, and rhythmic vitality of this Skride/Aadland collaboration serve the music exceptionally well.

     For fine violin playing of a different kind, in service of some very different music, listeners can skip from the 18th century to the 20th and hear a new Divine Art recording featuring chamber works by three prominent Polish composers, performed by two or all three members of the Huberman Piano Trio. The best-known composer here is Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937), represented by his D Minor Sonata for Violin and Piano of 1904 – a work as youthful in its way as Mozart’s violin concertos are in theirs. The Szymanowski way in this earliest of his chamber compositions is clearly in the process of abandoning Romanticism and almost escaping traditional tonality. Cast in the traditional three movements (the second combining slow-movement and Scherzo elements), the sonata is front-weighted, the opening Allegro moderato full of violin expressiveness that never quite allows lyricism to enter the sound world. However, in the Andantino tranquillo e dolce, which begins in much the same mood in which the first movement concludes, there is a certain amount of genuine tranquility and perhaps even sweetness – although the chromaticism gives the material an edge, as do the pizzicato passages that are well-contrasted in this recording with the legato ones. The finale has some characteristics of perpetuum mobile and a variety of nervous-sounding tremolo effects that highlight the violin’s thorough dominance of the material – the piano is distinctly subsidiary in this sonata, although it often helps ground the violin, allowing it to produce flights of fancy. Three decades separate this sonata from the 1934 Piano Trio, Op. 1 by Andrzrej Panufnik (1914-1991), but this trio too is a work of its composer’s youth. Panufnik revised the work in 1977, and the Huberman Piano Trio uses that version, but the compositional explorations of a young man still come through clearly. The trio takes some of the elements of Szymanowski’s approach a good deal further, lying easily within what had by the 1930s become standard forms of modernism. But it actually seems more comfortable with old-style Romanticism than Szymanowski does in his sonata, as if the clear break from that tradition is now so firmly ensconced in music that it is acceptable to return to it to produce a certain number of effects. Panufnik’s trio is also strongly influenced by jazz, which throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s was such a significant element of classical composition. The piano riffs in the Presto finale, for example, show the jazz influence quite clearly, as does the trio’s overall rhythmic fluidity, which sometimes makes the music sound improvisational even though there is nothing aleatoric in it. The flourish at the work’s very end seems entirely in character for the piece as a whole. Also on this well-played CD is the highly interesting Sonata No. 4 for Violin and Piano by Grażyna Bacewīcz (1909-1969). This is a four-movement work from 1949 that incorporates mid-20th-century notions of tonality, rhythm, and instrumental contrast, but does so in a context that, like that of Panufnik’s trio, is not averse to looking back at the Romantic era. That is especially evident in the second movement, an Andante ma non troppo that sounds both emotional and expansive in this recording and that is then very nicely contrasted with the Scherzo: Molto vivo that follows. That movement is almost Mendelssohnian in its lightness and scurrying, although scarcely so in its harmonic palette. The finale of this sonata balances the first movement effectively – this is the only work on the CD that does not have a dominant opening movement – and the concluding movement’s Con passione marking is taken seriously here, lending the finish a degree of intensity that would not be out of place in Romanticism, even though the actual sound of the material is very much of its time. Whether interested in Polish music, 20th-century chamber pieces or simply in very fine small-ensemble playing, listeners will find much to enjoy here, including a presentation in which violin, cello and piano are all handled with a very high level of skill and a great deal of involvement in the music.

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