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CLASSICAL  October 2009

CLASSICAL October 2009

Subject:

Modern Violin Sonatas

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Thu, 8 Oct 2009 14:55:36 -0700

Content-Type:

text/plain

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* JANACEK: Violin Sonata (1914-22)
* SZYMANOWSKI: Myths (1915)
* ENESCU: Violin Sonata #3 in A, op. 25 "In the popular Romanian style" (1926)
* BARTOK: First Rhapsody for Violin and Piano (1928)

David Grimal (violin); Georges Pludermacher (piano).
Nayve Ambrosie AM 163 (DDD)  TT: 72:49.

Summary for the Busy Executive: Music out of the Great War.

As you can see by the dates, all of these works appeared within a single
fifteen-year span.  World War I, which nationalist urges had precipitated,
shredded both social and political order.  The destruction of the German,
Austrian, Ottoman, and Russian empires and the Treaty of Versailles
released even greater nationalist pressures, especially in those countries,
like Poland, which the treaty had created out of ethnic and linguistic
conclaves.

The hegemony of German music also weakened.  Of the five seminal figures
of Modernism -- Debussy, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartok, and Hindemith
-- only Schoenberg retained strong ties to the German music of the
immediate past.  The music on this CD testifies to the bond between
Modernism and cultural nationalism.

In the first decade of the century, Janacek had broken through to
a personal idiom based on Moravian folk sources and, in his operas, on
the rhythms of Czech speech.  For me, however, his greatest period begins
right around the First World War.  David Grimal's liner notes try to
make a case for the violin sonata as one of those works influenced by
Czech politics, with a narrative of suppression by Austria leading to
salvation by the Russian army (!).  It may even be true historically,
but, unlike something like Taras Bulba, I don't really get that from the
music itself, which impresses mainly by its quirks.  Janacek's use of
dissonance is idiosyncratic, often so extreme that the piano and violin
parts have nothing tonally to do with one another.  Yet I'd bet that
most people would find the dissonances acceptable or dramatic, rather
than bizarre and tooth-buzzing.  Despite his designation of sonata,
Janacek stays away from sonata movement or anything like classical form.
Each of the four movements is sui generis.  Janacek shapes the opening
by varying one or two improvisational phrases.  The slow "Ballada" reminds
me of the later Martinu, in that a long-breathed melody arches over a
buzzing surface.  The third movement alternates between angry stamping
and sorrow.  The finale comes across as a drama where the piano tries
to calm the rage of the violin with a beautiful chorale, which again
reminds me of Martinu before the fact.  About halfway in, the violin
begins to take up the chorale, only to end in wrathful sputters.  However,
it comes more and more into the orbit of the piano until, in the very
last measures, the two finally wind up in emotional synch.

Szymanowski's Myths belong to his Impressionist period, a transitional
phase where he throws off the post-Straussian idiom he began with and
begins to travel the route to his final Modernist nationalism.  Myths
depicts three Greek tales, which you can find in Ovid.  I never particularly
cared for the music of this period, although Szymanowski is a fine enough
musician to make all of it convincing.  Myths strikes me as the composer
trading in Straussian noodling around for Debussyan noodling around, to
fashion three little tone poems.  As in the Janacek, one finds no trace
of classical form.  The literary narrative drives the musical one.  If
you like that sort of thing, I won't stop you.

A virtuoso pianist and violinist (indeed, one of the great violinists
of his time), George Enescu put tons of his performer's savvy as well
as first-rate invention into his third sonata.  Essentially, he calls
on the violinist to become a gypsy fiddler.  The sonata rhapsodizes.  It
sounds free-form and improvisatory, but in reality hangs together tightly
without actually relying on classical form.  The music sounds like a
cross between Ravel (a classmate and pal of Enescu's at the Paris
Conservatoire, by the way) and Bartok.  This work looks backwards to the
late Nineteenth Century and the "gypsy" concert works, Romantic in its
harmonies and phrasing.  But it also looks ahead in its structural
innovations.  He builds the first movement as a gypsy rhapsody: slow
arabesques interrupted by faster, more dance-like sections.  The second
movement proceeds mostly on drones, a risky eight minutes long which
keeps interest.  The finale is what I'd call a Hungarian rondo, although
Enescu would have objected -- a shower of virtuoso pyrotechnics, special
bowing effects, and so on, designed to bring the audience to its feet.
Here, Enescu comes closest to Bartok, the lighter Bartok of the Romanian
Folkdances, the Hungarian Sketches, or even the Violin Rhapsodies.

Bartok structures his First Rhapsody very much like the Liszt Hungarian
Rhapsodies -- two parts, slow and fast.  It comes from 1928, written for
Bartok's tours accompanying violinists, to provide a less heavy recital
item than the 1921-1922 violin sonatas.  It's worth comparing to the
Enescu.  The Enescu exhibits obvious major ambition -- epic statement,
incredibly detailed.  The Bartok has fewer details, but more telling
ones, I think.  It's more streamlined, less Romantic.  He emphasizes
tune.  His violin writing, though not as "encyclopedic" as Enescu's,
nevertheless impresses -- particularly a double- and triple-stop passage
in the first movement -- all the more so when you consider that Bartok
was a pianist only.  Enescu has enough of the late Nineteenth Century
and Impressionism to remind one more of Kodaly, while Bartok seems wholly
Modern, although in a more user-friendly mode.

Grimal strikes me as a violinist distinguished by refinement and elegance.
His tone is a bit thin for my taste, but he plays cleanly, even with the
cruelly clear recorded sound.  The question comes down to whether this
approach suits the pieces here.  It works best for Szymanowski's Myths
and the Bartok Rhapsody.  However, the Enescu, though cleanly and
attentively played, cries out for more passion.  Grimal does best in the
finale, where the energy ramps up another notch.  The Janacek fares less
well.  Filled with howls and savage anger, it cries out for a violinist
willing to press up to the edge of bad taste.  Grimal keeps his distance.
Pianist Georges Pludermacher does a fabulously sensitive job matching
and supporting Grimal's reading, as alert to the opportunities of the
moment as a jazz player.  Nevertheless, it seems to me Grimal has given
Pludermacher the parameters which drive the account and thus seems the
primary intelligence.  It would interest me to know what Pludermacher
would come up with for another violinist.

Steve Schwartz

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