Twentieth Century Romantic
Works for Violin and Piano
* Elgar: Sonata for Violin and Piano, op. 82
* Busoni: Sonata for Violin and Piano in e, op. 29
* Prokofiev: 5 Melodies for Violin and Piano, op. 35bis
Gerald Itzkoff, violin
Philip Amalong, piano
Titanic Ti-265 Total time: 67:38
Summary for the Busy Executive: Singing in the dark.
Someone has a bit misleadingly titled this CD "Twentieth Century Romantic."
The Prokofiev may be lyrical, but hardly Romantic. The Elgar, like
Mahler's music, inhabits a fluid space between Romantic and Modern.
The Busoni, an early work, probably earns the Romantic label, the only
work on the program to do so. So much for minor complaints against
what undoubtedly constitutes a marketing attempt. After all, the
word "Romantic" makes many people all warm and fuzzy, despite the many
hair-raising examples of Romanticism from Beethoven through Wagner. The
program really consists of works - none less than extremely interesting,
and at least two considerably more than that - which deserve more
recognition and exposure.
The Elgar sonata appears fairly late in the composer's career - one of
four mature chamber-music masterpieces, consisting of the Sonata, the
String Quartet, the Piano Quintet, all written toward the end of World
War I, and the earlier Concert Allegro for piano of 1901. Elgar delayed
writing these works because he made his living from music, and full-blooded
chamber-music then as now didn't really pay. As much as we hate to
admit, money does influence art. Elgar wrote them out of mainly idealistic
impulses and complained all the while of the Philistine public. After
all, most of Elgar's chamber music consists of saleable salon miniatures,
like "Adieu" or " Chanson de matin," morceaus of genius, but lacking the
structural sophistication of the four works above. Of them, I've always
preferred the quintet, but most Elgarians disagree with me. Nevertheless,
the choice really comes down to individual taste, rather than to an issue
of quality. Some people would rather eat etouffee than duck-and-sausage
gumbo. Like most of Elgar's war music (the cello concerto particularly
comes to mind), the sonata bristles with psychological complexity and
quicksilver mood shifts and ranges in mood from turmoil to nostalgic
regret. One often senses an uneasy undercurrent in Elgar's music. In
the violin sonata, subliminal becomes overt. Elgar takes advantage of
the post-Wagnerian loosening of classical development and comes up with
something as much fantasia as development, juxtaposition of fragments
as opposed to seamless transformations of material. The chief psychological
tone comes across as broken, even scattered, particularly in the slow
movement, which proceeds by half-starts and sobs. I love the roughness
with which Itzkoff and Amalong attack the first movement. They avoid
the trap of Suave Elgar, which, I'm convinced, led to the view of Elgar
as a smug musical Colonel Blimp. Emotions in Elgar's major works seldom
reduce to complacency. Indeed, the music indulges like mad in nervous
introspection. The epigraph to his second symphony - Shelley's "Rarely,
rarely comest thou, / Spirit of Delight" - sums up much of Elgar's music
for me. It's almost bipolar music - strong antipodal juxtapositions and
long slides from triumph to despair. Itzkoff and Amalong get the turmoil
of the music, but they miss the range of it, the subtle gradations between
the poles. They read the sonata well, but, for my taste, too broadly.
Busoni composed his first violin sonata early, in 1891 at roughly age
25. It sounds to me like the work of a diligent student and no more.
It's focused in its argument but lacks the intellectual extravagance
found in works like the Fantasia Contrappuntistica, the Piano Concerto,
and the operas that makes Busoni so interesting. This sonata is a
well-crafted bit of second-hand Romanticism. Beethoven and Brahms provide
the principal voices - Beethoven for the Sturm und Drang aspects of the
sonata and Brahms for the lyric bits. Itzkoff and Amalong do what they
can with the sonata, but without transforming it into something it's
not. Indeed, Itzkoff and Amalong give pretty much their all, an attention
to detail and delicate color (particularly in the slow movement, where
the writing sticks like barnacles to the violin's low register) that
would have benefited the Elgar.
Prokofiev's 5 Melodies come from 1925 (and California) but sound much
later than that, like a pendant to something like Romeo and Juliet.
After all, the Teens had hosted Prokofiev's "iron and steel" barbarism.
The Twenties saw some smoothing-out, but still the composer came out
with the massive second and third symphonies. These little pieces must
have gone somewhat unnoticed at the time, since the standard view of
Prokofiev at one time was that the Soviets had "tamed" the radical.
But we see now that a yearning lyricism and a rapprochement with folk
material belonged to Prokofiev even before he returned to the Soviet
Union. The first movement always reminds me of the opening phrase of
Gershwin's "I've Got a Crush on You," in a melting, languid waltz rhythm.
The second seems like a Russian Faure, as the harmonies slip and slide
among keys with tenderness and grace. None of these gems would disgrace
a larger work. Prokofiev works at the top of his considerable game here,
folding a big emotional payoff into a relatively small package. My
favorite performance - the one I imprinted on - comes from David Oistrakh
and Frida Bauer, who come up with an account of great intensity. No one
approaches that, but Itzkoff and Amalong take a different, warmer approach
which suits the score very well indeed.
Both Itzkoff and Amalong know their instruments. Itzkoff has a lovely,
full tone. Amalong has mastered phrase and color. However, they don't
yet seem a fully-functional chamber partnership, as if they looked at
the music in fundamentally different ways. Itzkoff has bravura. Amalong
seems more able to delineate structure and more willing to collaborate
in chamber mode. They need to get to know one another. There's nothing
terrible about any of these performances. Indeed, the Busoni shows what
they can do right now when they ride the same waves. The Prokofiev
strikes me as genuinely heart-felt. On the other hand, I think of
collaborations like Janet Baker and Gerald Moore, Oistrakh and Richter,
Stephen Varcoe and Penelope Thwaites - not surprising that two of the
three are singers - and yearn for that kind of communication between the
The sonic image aims at the natural, a little on the dry side.