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CLASSICAL  May 2010

CLASSICAL May 2010

Subject:

Rozsa - Chamber Music for Violin

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

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

Date:

Thu, 6 May 2010 15:38:47 -0700

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (148 lines)

[Read online: http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/n/nxs70190a.php ]

Miklos Rozsa
Music for Violin & Piano

*  Variations on a Hungarian Peasant Song, op. 4 (1929)
*  Duo for Violin & Piano, op. 7 (1931)
*  North Hungarian Peasant Songs and Dances, op. 5 (1929)
*  Sonata for Violin Solo, op. 40 (1986)

Philippe Quint, violin
William Wolfram, piano
Naxos 8.570190 Total Time: 60:32

Summary for the Busy Executive: Play, zigeuner, play!

This CD brings together all of Rozsa's chamber music for violin.  The
violin was in fact one of Rozsa's instruments, although - unlike, say,
Grazyna Bacewicz - he never pursued a performing career.  However, beyond
Rozsa's usual meticulous craft, his hands-on acquaintance with the violin
at least assures you of an idiomatic part.  The works here come from
early and late in Rozsa's career, with the middle taken up mainly by
orchestral works and film scores.  Rozsa began and ended with chamber
music - early, out of a native caution, a "walk-before-run" mentality;
late, because of a degenerative illness that made creating full orchestral
scores physically too demanding.

The earliest two works, Variations on a Hungarian Peasant Song and
North Hungarian Songs and Dances (sometimes billed as the Little Suite),
use Hungarian folk tunes - as the liner notes point out, two of the
three works in Rozsa's entire output that do.  Like Vaughan Williams,
Rozsa had absorbed the folk music of his country into his musical DNA.
Essentially, he "wrote folk music," although this description fails to
do justice to both him and Vaughan Williams.  I began to think of the
similarities and differences between Rozsa and Bartok (a hero of Rozsa's,
by the way) in their approach to folk music.  Both avoid the syrupy
sentimentality of something like de Sarasate's Zigeunerweisen because
they regard Hungarian folk tunes as good tunes, rather than as picturesque
evocations of the exotic.  Bartok, however, went deeper into folk music
than Rozsa did.  Among other things, it represented the discovery of his
musical salvation, a key to his own artistic voice.  Through folk music
and the example of Stravinsky, Bartok consciously forged his brand of
Modernism.  Folk music was the gateway to more complex harmonies and
newer, freer forms.  On the other hand, Rozsa was no ethnomusicologist.
Hungarian folk music was something he had heard since he was a boy. It
was almost always part of him.  In that sense, Rozsa didn't discover
himself in folk music.  It was something he didn't have to think about.
When he caught on to Modernism, the folk basis was inevitably there, and
he was always more architecturally conservative than Bartok.  Indeed,
Rozsa's forms are straightforwardly simple here, but his treatment (he
always had an amazingly precise ear) sets these tunes off like jewels.
Rozsa thought enough of each to orchestrate them both.

The Duo from two years later shows more ambition.  I consider it
the best of the early works for violin.  It's really a violin sonata,
although I have no idea why Rozsa didn't call it that.  It encompasses
four movements, arranged in the "usual" Hungarian format of slow, fast,
slow, fast.  The first movement, "Tranquillo," opens with a meditative
introduction which features the violin in double stops (playing two notes
simultaneously), with just a hint of counterpoint.  A bold, rhythmically
vigorous theme sets out, followed by a more laid-back, gracious one.
The movement very quickly settles into sonata form as these two themes
develop.  Structurally, Rozsa provides a nice wrinkle.  After a
recapitulation, the introductory music returns.  However, the movement
ends not there, but with a unison restatement by violin and piano of
the rhythmic theme.  Incidentally, I hear a touch of Ernest Bloch, but
it probably comes down to a mutual folk source found by both composers.
"Allegretto capriccioso" presents a scherzo and trio.  The scherzo proper
alternates between a stamping 3/4 and a mercurial 6/8, while the trio
is more declamatory, in duple time.  The gorgeous third movement, "Largo
doloroso," may trick you into believing that Rozsa just sings his head
off, until you realize that the violin and the piano, independent of
each other, sing two different songs.

The finale, "Allegro vivo e giusto," is a sonata-rondo - that is,
a rondo touched by aspects of sonata form, which kind of ups the
compositional ante.  The usual rondo takes a main theme and intersperses
its reappearances with what are known as "episodes." The episodes differ
from one another.  So the form of a typical rondo might be A-B-A-C-A-D-A
etc.  In Rozsa's sonata-rondo, there are only two themes, both of which
the composer subjects to development.  A sonata-rondo with two themes
would look something like this: A-B-A'-B'-A"-B"-A"' etc., with perhaps
the final A section a recap of the first instance, rather than yet another
development.  Most importantly, however, Rozsa provides yet another
exciting race to the finish.  The two themes function in a dramatic way.
They bump against one another, like roller derby skaters, and we can't
wait to see which one will win through.  It's by no means a forgone
conclusion, especially since Rozsa gives huge amounts of time to the B
theme.

Illness caught up with Rozsa in his old age.  He no longer had the
stamina to compose for large forces.  His late work consists of chamber
pieces for one instrument: sonatas for solo flute, violin, clarinet,
guitar, ondes martenot, and oboe, and an Introduction and Allegro for
viola.  In a catalogue full of gems, the Sonata for Violin Solo (1985)
ranks as one of his finest compositions.  Lest anyone think that writing
for a solo melody instrument constitutes easy work, think of how many
successful pieces there are in the genre, other than Bach's.  Having
tried and failed to do this myself, I know exactly how hard it is.  I
ran into two main problems.  First, if you're not careful, the music
tends to merge into a blah wad, tonally speaking.  The violin gives you
some scope with its array of bowing techniques, its ability to double-
and triple-stop, its wide range of pitch from essentially low alto to
soprano and beyond, and its variety of tone, depending on where you bow
the instrument.  This assumes you really know the instrument.  Second,
the lack of harmonies puts a composer's melodic skill to an extreme test.
Even a great composer can easily degenerate into what sounds like
incoherent noodling around.  I've heard composers I admire (even love)
succumb to this, although I won't name them, just in case somebody wants
to call me Philistine.

The sonata breaks into three substantial movements: a sonata "Allegro
moderato," "Canzone con variazioni" (another variations set, one of
Rozsa's favorite forms), and "Finale: Vivace." This work astonishes me
in its running against expectations.  It's primarily contrapuntal, rather
than chordal or melodic.  Indeed, Rozsa uses the various tessiturae and
colors of the violin very much like opposing sections of the orchestra.
I like the second movement the best, although I don't mean to slight the
other two.  The coherence throughout also impresses.  It comes across
as one long song.  It doesn't sing with all the lush lyricism Rozsa is
capable of, but it's not that kind of piece.  It's closer to Bartok and
especially to Kodaly's Sonata for solo cello.  It wouldn't surprise me
to learn that the latter work lurked in the back of Rozsa's mind as he
wrote.

The performances are just as marvelous as the music - wonderful. 
Philippe Quint (a native Russian, despite the name) has a piercingly
beautiful tone, dead-on intonation, and uncannily accurate fingers.
Added to all that, he fairly drips with great musicianship.  He doesn't
inflate anything.  He doesn't condescend to anything.  He's not afraid
to sacrifice beauty of tone when the music calls for it.  Pianist William
Wolfram is just as good.  Given a star violinist of this quality, many
accompanists would simply lay back and let the star do his thing.  Wolfram
doesn't lie down, and furthermore Quint won't let him.  I've heard from
Wolfram more of Rozsa's elegant counterpoint in the piano than from any
other performance I've encountered.  This is a true chamber collaboration.
You get the impression that, as in jazz, both players riff off one another
spontaneously - more likely a tribute to their capacity for hard work
as well as to their musicianship.  I keep saying this, but this Naxos
disc will probably wind up among my favorites of the year.

Steve Schwartz

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