June 22, 2023


Grieg: Sonata No. 3 for Violin and Piano; Amanda Meier: Piano Trio; Tartini: Sonata Prima in D, Op. 2, No. 1. Frank Almond, violin; Adam Neiman, piano (Grieg); Alexander Hersh, cello, and Victor Santiago Asunción, piano (Meier). AVIE. $17.99.

Brahms: Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano; Franck: Violin Sonata. Qian Yin, violin; Po-Chuan Chiang, piano. MSR Classics. $14.95.

Lowell Liebermann: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra; Chamber Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Air, Op. 118. Aiman Mussakhajayeva, violin; Lowell Liebermann, piano; Kazakh State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Tigran Shiganyan. Blue Griffin Recordings. $15.99.

     It may seem obvious that performances focus on the music being played and/or on the performer(s), but this is not always the case. Under some circumstances, such as those surrounding a new AVIE recording featuring violinist Frank Almond, the focus is on the instrument being played – its provenance and sound – more than anything else. This is Almond’s third release featuring the 1715 Antonio Stradivari violin now known as the “‘Lipiński’ Stradivari” in honor of Polish violinist-composer Karol Józef Lipiński (1790-1861). Almond’s first CD focusing on this instrument dates to 2013, his second to 2016. The connections of this violin with the three composers featured here vary and are as much in the “it may have happened” realm as in that of certainty, but the program gives Almond a chance to offer three interestingly different works that, in their own ways, allow the sublime expressiveness and tonal evenness of this violin to come through to fine effect. Grieg’s third sonata is a substantial three-movement work, written 20 years after his second, and has some fascinating history apart from anything involving this violin: for one thing, it was recorded in 1928 by Fritz Kreisler and Sergei Rachmaninoff. It is strongly Romantic in sound and stays true to its C minor nature: drama and lyricism interweave in the first movement, songfulness dominates the second, and the mostly upbeat third has room for an emotional contrasting theme. The violin’s purity of tone keeps it front-and-center throughout in this performance, whose warmth is its most salient characteristic. Grieg’s work (1886-87) is followed by a Piano Trio of roughly the same vintage (1873-74) by Amanda Meier (1853-1894), a virtuoso violinist and, in her time, a well-regarded composer – and friend of Grieg. This trio is the longest of the three works on this disc, and stands up well next to the Grieg sonata. The piano has rather more prominence here than in Grieg’s work, although the lyrical singing of the violin is a pervasive and highly convincing element. Structurally, Meier’s four-movement piece is interesting for its piquant second movement and the partial cyclicality with which Meier brings back the main theme of the Andante in the finale – which has some memorable themes of its own. The work is pleasant, without the intensity of Grieg’s third sonata, and is well-made without being especially memorable. The third piece on the disc is the one most closely associated with the violin that Almond plays, since the instrument was originally owned by Giuseppe Tartini (1692-1770). The Tartini work heard here dates to 1743 and is in four movements, not Tartini’s usual three – it is in Sonata da Chiesa form, slow-fast-slow-fast, and is for violin with cello bass. It is the first sonata in a collection of 12. The cantabile indication for the first movement is well-reflected in this performance, and the third movement, Affettuoso, offers proto-Romantic emotionalism that is particularly well-communicated by Almond’s sensitive playing. The disc’s strong focus on an instrument may be unusual, but the very fine performances of some enjoyably contrasted works make the CD well worth hearing for chamber-music lovers.

     Like two of the three pieces on the Almond recording, the two on an MSR Classics CD featuring violinist Qian Yin and pianist Po-Chuan Chiang are Romantic in spirit and approach. Yin and Chiang embrace the warmth and lyricism of these works completely and play them with sensitivity and a strong sense of engagement. Their willingness to embrace the ma non troppo designation of the Brahms sonata’s first-movement Vivace is particularly welcome, helping give the movement and the piece as a whole a large scale and sweeping sense of emotional connection. It is interesting to hear the extent to which this sonata in G major has a minor-key feeling to it through much of this performance: Yin’s technique, in particular, lends itself to the emergence of the maximum amount of emotion from the music. Similarly, the performance of the Franck sonata seems designed to extract the greatest possible amount of Romantic lyricism from all four movements. In some places, the sweep of the piano part comes through more strongly than the individual notes – especially in the second-movement Allegro, where the performers do not seem 100% in agreement on their approach to the music: the violin’s elements are distinctly clearer and less sweeping than the piano’s. The finale, on the other hand, is particularly nicely balanced, although here there is something a bit perfunctory rather than emotionally exploratory in the violin’s material. These are certainly very capable performances, often with touches of real beauty. The music, however, is very well-known, and listeners will not find any particularly compelling reason to prefer these interpretations to others: Yin and Chiang are technically proficient and emotionally open to the material, but do not seem to have anything especially new or insightful to communicate in these readings.

     In contrast to the two well-known works played by Yin and Chiang, the four violin-focused ones on a new Blue Griffin Recordings CD are essentially unknown: all are heard here in world première recordings. Lowell Liebermann (born 1961) wrote his Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in 2001, casting it in the traditional three movements and keeping the violin busy almost throughout – in ensemble passages when not in the forefront. The concerto is full of cadenzas – the first one occurs less than two minutes after the start of the first movement – and goes out of its way to be soulful much of the time, notably in the second movement, whose Lento is somewhat overdone: it sounds like film music for an emotionally intense scene in, say, a hospital. The finale contrasts strongly with the first two movements, being more strongly rhythmic than either, much more martial in character, and willing to allow listeners some lighter moments to contrast with the dramatic ones that dominate the concerto as a whole. Aiman Mussakhajayeva plays the concerto with relish, catching its moods cleverly and exploiting its numerous virtuoso opportunities; and the Kazakh State Symphony Orchestra under Tigran Shiganyan provides strong backdrop when given the chance to emerge from the subsidiary role in which it is cast much of the time. The three other works on this disc, all single-movement pieces, are heard here in versions differing from their original ones. Chamber Concerto No. 1 was originally for violin, piano and string quartet; Chamber Concerto No. 2 was written for violin and string quintet; and Air, Op. 118, was created for flute and organ. Here the pieces are for violin and orchestra – with piano, played by Liebermann himself, in the first Chamber Concerto. This piece (1998/2022) is warm, melodic, lyrical, and full of virtuoso opportunities for both violin and piano. It is perhaps a bit over-extended, and the string-orchestra accompaniment is much  less interesting than the solo instruments’ material, but the work is filled with melodic pleasantries and a good deal of rhythmic cleverness. Chamber Concerto No. 2 (2006/2022) is considerably shorter (11 minutes vs. 17) and quite a bit darker in mood. The rhythmic variety and metrical changes are recognizable stylistic elements of Liebermann’s work, but here they are more at the service of passion and emotional warmth than virtuosity for its own sake – although virtuoso passages are scarcely absent. Like many contemporary composers, Liebermann avoids assigning specific key signatures to his works – but this one is clearly in the minor, pervaded by solemnity and sadness. There is a personal connection for Liebermann here – he wrote the work after a close friend died – but listeners do not need that information to respond to the pervasive darkness of the piece. It is highly effective, but somewhat difficult to sit through because of its nearly unremitting sorrow – which, however, never quite turns into despair. After this, Air (2011) makes for a strong contrast, being quiet and peaceful and largely based on major-minor aural contrast. There are elements of melancholy here, but nothing approaching the sorrowful depths of Chamber Concerto No. 2. And by the end, Air is firmly in the major, assertive if not exactly triumphant: the quiet conclusion does not seem hard-won but simply accepted with gratitude. Everything on this CD is well-made and well-played. However, except for Chamber Concerto No. 2, the pieces are intermittently rather than consistently engaging. Still, all of them contain elements that are certainly worth hearing – they are evidence of a composer who decidedly knows his way around the violin in forms and instrumental combinations of all sorts.

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