November 16, 2023


Respighi: Sonata for Violin and Piano; Paganini: Cantabile; Saint-Saëns: Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano; Chopin: Nocturne, Op. 9, No. 2 (transcribed by Sarasate). Paul Huang, violin; Helen Huang, piano. Naïve. $16.99.

Richard Strauss: Sonata for Cello and Piano; Grieg: Sonata for Cello and Piano; Fauré: Élégie. Christoph Croisé, cello; Oxana Shevchenko, piano. AVIE. $17.99.

Hindemith: Sonata for Viola and Piano, Op. 11, No. 4, arranged for alto saxophone; William Albright: Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano; Erwin Schulhoff: Hot-Sonate; Edison Denisov: Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano. AkMi Duo (Valentine Michaud, saxophone; Akvilé Šileikaité, piano). AVIE. $17.99.

     In addition to its own substantial expressive capabilities, the piano has a way of accentuating and highlighting the expressiveness of other instruments when it is paired with them – even when the keyboard takes a decidedly subsidiary role in duets, or is not the focus of the music for some other reason. A Naïve CD featuring Paul Huang, for example, is very much violin-focused, since Huang is heard playing a famous instrument: the 1742 ex-Wieniawski Guarneri. The instrument proves especially well-suited to the difficult sonatas by Respighi and Saint-Saëns that are the featured works on the disc. But it is worth noting that it is the piano that initially sets the stage for Respighi’s first movement before the violin establishes its dominance, and the piano whose lower register provides some excellent contrast as the violin soars in its higher reaches. Both violinist Paul Huang and pianist Helen Huang (no relation) are fully attuned to the wide emotional range of Respighi’s sonata – whose mood is again set by the piano in the beautifully flowing Andante espressivo and in the dramatic opening of the concluding Passacaglia. The very clean tone of Paul Huang’s instrument makes an ideal contrast with Respighi’s use of the darker sounds of the piano, providing contrast that results in a deeply satisfying aural blend. Before moving to its other large-scale work, the CD includes a lovely three-and-a-half-minute Cantabile by Paganini, its simple and beautifully flowing lines elegantly accentuated by the elegant sound of the violin – which, unsurprisingly, thoroughly dominates the piano in this work. Then, in the Saint-Saëns sonata, the performers begin together and function as a closely unified thematic unit throughout. This is a work of substantial lyricism as well as a level of drama that requires very close collaboration between violin and piano for its full effect. It gets that in this performance: the music soars and subsides, rises and falls, always with poise and elegance in which it wraps a substantial level of emotional involvement. This is a highly understanding performance, plumbing the music’s depths without allowing the four-movement work to become cloying. This is especially evident in the slow movement, where the Adagio tempo invites feeling to flow freely without overflowing: Paul Huang uses just the right amount of vibrato to accentuate the emotive lines of the music without allowing them to become overdone. The spiccato at the start of the brief third movement provides a notable contrast, especially since the piano here has a high level of delicacy of its own. And the very fast opening of the Allegro molto finale proves a first-rate showcase both for the violin and for the violinist: every note comes through with complete clarity as the piano dances around the speedy violin until the two eventually come together in a pairing that alternates between whirlwind and smooth warmth. This movement could serves as a delightfully upbeat conclusion to the CD, almost an encore in itself, but the performers follow it with something much gentler and exceptionally heartfelt: Pablo de Sarasate’s very pleasing transcription of Chopin’s Nocturne, Op. 9, No. 2, whose songfulness – primarily in the violin, but with effective piano underlining – brings this exceptional disc to a truly lovely conclusion.

     The piano can be as effective when interacting with lower strings as with upper ones, as is clear from a new AVIE recording featuring three cello-and-piano works from the same year, 1883. This may be a rather odd organizational principle for a release, but it works well here – because it highlights both the similarities among the three works on the CD and their differences. Christoph Croisé and Oxana Shevchenko first perform the cello sonata by Richard Strauss, who was only 19 in 1883 and had not come close to finding his mature musical voice – but who, on the basis of this work, already possessed some of the sumptuousness of sound that would be a near-lifelong characteristic of his works. The sonata is somewhat overlong, and the first movement in particular has a comparatively episodic quality, but the emotional content of the music comes through clearly and the interweaving of cello and piano is skillfully accomplished. The feeling of being overextended in this performance is due mostly to the way Croisé and Shevchenko handle the second movement, which is marked Andante ma non troppo but which here begins in near-stasis that produces an almost funereal effect. The beauties of the cello part and the solid underpinning of the piano notwithstanding, the movement simply drags. The piano’s delicate opening of the finale lightens matters immediately, but the performance never really recovers from the miscalculation of the central movement; and even this conclusion is spun out rather too much for a movement marked Allegro vivo. Thankfully, Croisé and Shevchenko do a better job with Grieg’s sonata, which is his only work for cello and piano. Grieg was at a considerably later point in his career in 1883 than Strauss was in his: Grieg was 40 years old and had just finished a stint as conductor of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra. His cello sonata, although a bit longer than that by Strauss, feels more compact by virtue of a tighter overall structure and a tendency to introduce new elements throughout its longer movements – an approach that confirms the notion of Grieg as being in large part a miniaturist. The second movement in this performance is also on the slow side, but the pacing is justified by its tempo marking of Andante molto tranquillo, and the delicacy with which Croisé and Shevchenko interact makes the movement more effective than the slow movement of the Strauss sonata. Grieg’s finale is his work’s longest movement, opening with joviality that the instruments share until the piano leads into music that becomes more delicate and lyrical. The movement meanders to the point of sometimes seeming episodic, but its manifest pleasantries keep it appealing. Croisé and Shevchenko then end the CD with Fauré’s Élégie, intended as the slow movement of a never-completed cello sonata. Here the piano briefly sets the mood before the cello’s sound becomes dominant in a highly emotive and delicate work that sounds like an extended song without words. Croisé and Shevchenko, who throughout this disc show their fondness (sometimes over-fondness) for slow pacing, are at their best here, preserving the music’s forward motion even as they extract its delicate beauties to fine effect. Despite the somewhat disappointing reading of the Strauss sonata, this is an engaging disc with some fine playing from both performers and an overall autumnal feeling that stops short of gloom but does suggest that the year 1883 was musically a crepuscular one.

     The music itself is of somewhat less interest on another AVIE release, this one a (+++) offering in which the piano accompanies not a string instrument but a woodwind. Valentine Michaud and Akvilé Šileikaité first offer their own arrangement of Hindemith’s 1919 Sonata for Viola and Piano, Op. 11, No. 4, a work whose rhapsodic elements turn out to fit the saxophone rather well. Interestingly designed, the sonata has two movements out of its three in variation form, the brief middle one and much longer finale. The piano’s contribution to the second movement is especially noteworthy: it provides a kind of grounding above which the viola, or in this case the saxophone, can weave expressive lines. The dark warmth of the original viola version of the work is missing here, replaced by nicely flowing saxophone material whose contrast with the piano is less than is heard between viola and piano in the original piece. Next on the CD is the four-movement sonata by William Albright (1944-1998). It is a well-intentioned work, created in memory of composer George Cacioppo (1927-1984); its second, longest movement is specifically labeled as a lament for Cacioppo. The piece does not, however, take much advantage of the expressive potential of the saxophone, and its brief third-movement Scherzo almost sounds like a parody of modern music in the way it tosses tiny bits of saxophone tunes and tinkling piano notes back and forth. More interesting is the intriguingly titled Hot-Sonate (1930) by Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942). This is a work steeped in jazz and specifically designed to reflect elements of that increasingly popular musical style. It has elements of ragtime, strongly syncopated portions, a third movement redolent of the blues that gives the saxophone ample opportunity to wail, and a quick finale whose rhythmic irregularity results in an unusually effective contrast and complementarity between saxophone and piano, as if they are playing largely different works that intersect from time to time. This is the most-interesting work on the disc, and Michaud and Šileikaité handle it with excellent rapport and a sense of strong mutual support. The final piece on the CD is a three-movement sonata by Edison Denisov (1929-1996) – which also has jazz elements, but which combines them rather awkwardly with the strictures of serialism. Denisov admired Shostakovich and based this work on the same four-letter motto theme that Shostakovich himself used as a signature in a number of works: D-S-C-H (D, E-flat, C, B). The actual sound of the piece owes nothing to Shostakovich, however. It includes pounding piano passages, quarter tones, a second movement that seems to emerge hesitantly from a background cloud of sound, and a finale – the most-appealing movement – that neatly contrasts the improvisation-like saxophone material with a piano ostinato that propels the music forward inexorably. It is an interesting work but not, as a whole, an especially convincing one. Indeed, that is a fair description of this entire CD: certainly interesting, it includes one genuine “find” in the Schulhoff sonata; but as a whole, it will likely be of considerably more interest to saxophonists looking for repertoire extensions than to a more-general audience.

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