The Ãtma Quartet Plays 20th-Century Polish Works

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SZYMANOWSKI: String Quartet No. 2. PANUFNIK: String Quartet No. 3, “Paper Cuts.” PENDERECKI: String Quartet No. 3, “Leaves of an Unwritten Diary” / Ãtma Quartet / CD Accord ACD 252-2

The very talented Ãtma Quartet presents here three works by modern-minded Polish composers, starting with Karol Szymanowski and ending with Krzysztof Penderecki, who is still with us. Although I am very fond of the Quatuor Joachim’s recordings of both Szymanowski quartets on the Calliope label, this one has wonderful atmosphere as well as acute attention to detail. It’s the kind of performance that sweeps you up in its path and does not prod you into looking for comparative versions because you sense that something is amiss with it. There is elegance and drama galore in their interpretation, which also has considerable sweep.

Next up is the String Quartet No. 3 of Andrzej Panufnik, a composer strongly influenced by both Szymanowski and Grazyna Bacewicz. I confess to not knowing ant of his music prior to hearing this work, which begins with a fairly steady drone on a D with little gestures coming in and out. When the music finally settles in, we hear a bitonal melody very much in the Bacewicz style, elegantly crafted and again with gestures from the cello to complement the violins and viola. At 1:06 it becomes more agitated, but only briefly before settling back down. The development, in double time, includes much pizzicato as well as a “snapping” of strings. The music has good form but, to my ears, doesn’t say much until the very fast “Prestissimo possible” movement with its edgy rhythm and driving cello figures. The “Adagio sostenuto” is also pretty interesting.

The finale is the third String Quartet of Penderecki, a composer who usually annoys me, but this work was written during his “second period” when he began to turn away from the purposely ugly music of such works as The Devils of Loudon. Began to, but didn’t quite; just around the two-minute mark we hear edgy and quite abrasive music. In the second half we reach an ugly sort of moto perpetuo that is exciting in its drive but not appealing at all. It is, however, better constructed than his earlier works, and develops in an interesting manner. It’s the kind of work that I found somewhat interesting but would not willingly sit through a second time.

So there you have it. A mixed bag insofar as the music goes but all of it extremely well played and emotionally engaged.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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De Saram Plays Works for Solo Cello

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BAX: Rhapsodic Ballad. LIGETI: Sonata for Solo Cello. DALLAPICCOLA: Ciaconna, Intermezzo e Adagio. CASSADÓ: Suite for Solo Cello / Rohan de Saram, cel / First Hand Recordings FHR49

Released in celebration of the cellist’s 80th birthday, these 2015 recordings of solo cello pieces by four varied composers is an interesting one. It opens with the very unusual Rhapsodic Ballad by Arnold Bax, unusual because he was much better known for his orchestral works than for chamber music. Yet the harmonies he uses vacillate between the conventional and the modern, which adds interest to the piece.

Next up is György Ligeti’s solo cello sonata, and de Saram plays it almost as well as Elena Gaponenko, the extremely talented Russian cellist-pianist. This is one of the composer’s earlier, more Bartók-and-Kodály-influenced pieces, but it still bears the mark of his unique musical mind, particularly the unusual, edgy second movement.

Another pleasant surprise is the quite modern-sounding Ciaconna, Intermezzo e Adagio by Luigi Dallapiccola, which is wonderfully modern in its harmonic trappings as well as tightly constructed, encompassing three pieces. Particularly interesting, to me, was the Intermezzo with its edgy pizzicato and edge-of-the-string bowing. In the “Adagio,” the cellist plays slightly out of tune (on purpose) to create a microtonal effect.

By contrast, the Cassadó Suite is almost conventional-sounding, more tonal if not melodically regular or enticing to lovers of Italian film or pop-classical music. De Saram plays it with vigor and an excellent tone, giving the music a firm muscular core and bringing out its Spanish influences. This is particularly evident in the second-movement “Danza” with its allusions to folk dance music. In the last movement, the dance element again enters the picture a little after the 2:30 mark, and this time almost sounds like flamenco.

This is an excellent album, one of the finest solo cello recordings I’ve ever heard. Highly recommended!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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The Morgenstern Trio plays Transformations

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TRANSFORMATIONS / BRIDGE: Phantasie Trio in C min. JALBERT: Piano Trio No. 2. BLOCH: 3 Nocturnes. BARAN: Dōnūşūmier (Transformations) / Morgenstern Trio / Azica ACD-71326

Named after German poet Christian Morgenstern, the trio of pianist Catherine Klipfel, violinist Stefan Hempel and cellist Emanuel Wehse met at Folkwang Conservatory. They’ve been playing together since 2008, but this is only their second CD.

The early (1907) Phantasie Trio by Frank Bridge, though in one continuous movement lasting a little over 17 minutes, is actually divided into five sections as follows:

  1. Allegro moderato ma con fuoco –
  2. Andante con molta espressione –
  3. Allegro scherzoso –
  4. Andante –
  5. Allegro moderato – Con anima

The Morgenstern Trio plays it with great passion but also with outstanding sweep and legato. Surprisingly for Bridge, the principal theme of the first section is tonal and almost Romantic in feeling, but it quickly morphs harmonically as the music becomes more agitated. At about 4:21 we move into the “Andante con molta espressione” section, played (again) in a Romantic style by the piano, with the violin and cello dropping little comments in before a broad cello theme changes things slightly. The “Allegro scherzoso” starts at 8:48, a brief but spirited movement with string pizzicato leading things off against the piano before returning to broad, bowed playing, then a switch to lightly bowed figures in which the chords become whole-tone and a bit edgier. We return to an “Andante” at 10:55 before moving into the final “Allegro moderato” theme, which is based on the opening but now expanded and developed further.

The following Piano Trio No. 2 is an entirely new work, composed for this group by Pierre Jalbert. In two contrasting movements—“Mysterious, nocturnal, desolate” and “Agitated, relentless”—the music begins with both strings playing very high up on the edge of their strings, very softly, while the piano plays little sprinkles of notes. Although a harmonically modern work, the Jalbert piece also features very broad themes which require a sustained style in many passages, although at 2:12 the tempo temporarily picks up and we get a surprisingly agitated section. Jalbert, who I had never heard of before, is clearly a composer who understands that a composition must develop and go somewhere, also that soft, mushy, romantic goop is not really “nocturnal,” just rubbish. The entire movement conveys a feeling not unlike driving down a poorly-lit highway with few road signs in the dead of night. You know you’re going somewhere, but you have doubts that you’re on the right track. Eventually, the music becomes entirely agitated before suddenly dropping down in tempo and volume for the final section. In the second movement, all is edginess, with the piano playing a moving bass line against staccato interjections by the strings. Jalbert sets up a sort of moto perpetuo for a while, but then interrupts it with edgy string tremolos and pizzicato as the tempo and volume suddenly drop for a slow passage reminiscent of the first movement, then picks up the restless energy once again. This is a simply wonderful piece: original, imaginative and very well-structured.

By contrast, the 3 Nocturnes of Ernest Bloch sound somewhat old-fashioned, yet the Morgenstern Trio plays them with such great feeling and temperament that they refuse to let the music sound sentimental. Indeed, they do a great job of emphasizing the somewhat French-style harmonics which include whole tones in its construction. Again, it’s the approach and not the actual score itself that dictates the mood, although the second of these nocturnes, marked “Andante quieto,” is clearly the most Romantic while the third, “Tempestoso,” is the edgiest.

Last up is the nine-part Dōnūşūmier or Transformations by Ilham Baran, a Turkish composer (now 84 years old) best known for electronic compositions. Since I can’t stand electronic music, I was happy to hear that this piece is indeed scored for a conventional piano trio without “enhancements.” After a somewhat tonal opening on the piano, the theme is played broadly by the violin while the cello assumes a rocking motion underneath. We then move into the first of eight variations, which combines Stravinskian rhythm with Middle Eastern harmonies. The second variation is slower and more elegant, almost relaxing except for its unusual harmonic movement. The third continues the vein of the second, but the theme is morphed further and includes pizzicato cello beneath increasingly louder block chords played by the piano. The volume slowly increases towards the end, which then leads us into the more rhythmic, medium-tempo fourth variation. In the brief fourth variation, the rhythm suddenly explodes in an “Allegro” that ends abruptly instead of carrying over to the very lyrical, almost Romantic fifth. By the eighth variation, we return to louder, edgier music, but what impressed me was the continuity that ran throughout the entire composition.

Clearly, this is an exceptional album, played with great heart and commitment by a trio that takes its mission very seriously. The sheer variety of material here, and the way it’s programmed, give one a feeling that they will continue to be very good for a long time to come.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Roberta Rust Celebrates Her Direct Contact with Composers

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DIRECT CONTACT /ROCHBERG: Carnival Music: Blues. M. ANDERSON: Thirteen Plus Four. Sonata: I. Misterioso – Molto legato. BROUWER: Diez Bocetos: Bocetos Nos. 5, 4, 7. ZWILICH: Lament. P. EVANS: Minuetto. Suite 1945: Sarabande. Aria. A. PRADO: Cartas Celestas, Vol. VII: Halley. T. McKINLEY: Fantasy Pieces for Piano: Invocation; The Tyger, Thy Fearful Symmetry. J. SHARPLEY: 4 Preludes: Reflection; Doodle; To the Memory of Eleanor Reichardt / Roberta Rust, pno / Navona NV6229

On this CD, pianist Roberta Rust plays the music of eight composers with whom she has had direct contact over the years, the two oldest of which are George Rochberg (1918-2005) and Phillip Evans (b. 1928). Although I understand her wanting to give all of them somewhat equal time, I was disappointed that she didn’t include the complete Carnival Music of the former composer since she plays the “Blues” segment so very well—even better than the pianist most closely associated with this little suite, Jerome Lewenthal.

But Rust has truncated other works in this recital as well. Only the first movement of Michael Anderson’s Sonata is given, as are only three pieces from Leo Brouwer’s Diez Bocetos, two pieces from Evans’ Suite 1945, two of Thomas McKinley’s Fantasy Pieces for Piano and only three of John Sharpley’s Four Preludes. Granted, the programming of the various pieces is excellent and she plays everything very well, providing a nice recital that is beautifully recorded (the piano sounds as if it’s right in your living room), but for the music lover it is a bit frustrating.

Speaking personally, I could have lived without Anderson’s soft brunch-styled music in the mix. Neither piece included here has much to offer the serious listener; it’s just pretty, tonal audio wallpaper. It sounds like someone noodling at the piano and not coming up with anything worth stopping to listen to. Kind of like mediocre movie music without the film.

At the opening of Brouwer’s Diez Bocetos we are immediately arrested by an unusual and original musical mind. He, too, slips into Sunday brunch mode with a tinkly melody, but redeems himself by snapping out of it. Unfortunately, thw music is not so much diverse-sounding as it is a juxtaposition of two opposing moods that simply don’t match, and the second of his pieces here follows a similar pattern. He apparently enjoys vacillating between interesting, complex music and little sing-song melodies that almost sound like nursery rhymes. After reading his bio in the liner notes, it all made sense to me. Brouwer is noted for writing film music and is also a classical guitarist.

Happily, we next get Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s Lament, written in 1999. Even in such a slow-moving piece, it is clear to the listener that Zwilich has a much more interesting approach to music than Anderson and a clearer sense of structure than Brouwer. This is a little masterpiece which Rust plays in a heartfelt manner.

Phillip Evans, a composer better known for his interpretations of the music of Bartók, is Rust’s husband. The little Minuetto, a charming piece with some interesting transpositions in the middle section, was written when he was only 11 years old. Even better are the “Sarabande” and “Aria” from his Suite 1945, written when he was 17. This is music that uses a bitonal basis but avoids the harsh edginess of atonal music, and both pieces are extremely well constructed. Indeed, the multi-faceted “Aria” is an excellent example of how to write a piece using different themes, tempi and moods without sounding as if they were disconnected. Evans clearly knows how to write music; this is an excellent piece.

Next up is the Halley section of José Antônio de Almeida Prado’s magnificent and complex Cartas Celestas. My regular readers may recall the glowing praise I gave to this music in the complete recording by pianist Aleyson Scopel. I’m happy to report that Rust’s performance of this section is just as good if not a shade better. The amorphous structure of these pieces belie their well-thought-out order, but Rust’s greater rhythmic impetus gives the music shape. My sole complaint here is that the very close microphone placement takes away some of the magical shimmering effects that Prado created in his music.

Equally excellent are McKinley’s Fantasy Pieces for Piano, which use an atonal base and unusual chord positions to create a forward-moving soundscape for the piano. Once again Rust shows her mettle in this performance, moving things forward while maintaining the interesting structure of the pieces which, alas, are very brief.

John Sharpley’s “Reflection” from his Four Preludes, like the Zwilich piece, is slow-moving but not sappy background music. Despite its slow pace and deliberately spaced-out notes, it takes an unusual course and keeps the listener mesmerized. “Doodle” is a fast-paced piece with a rapid babble of bass notes leading off, passing the baton to the right hand to play around with and back again. Some of the rhythms reminded me a little of jazz. Sharpley enjoys playing games with the listener, moving back and forth from right hand to left and even tossing in two quotes from Yankee Doodle as a little gag. To the Memory of Eleanor Reichardt, another slow piece, also has excellent structure, sprinkling little flurries of notes from the right hand into its stately procession of block chords. At the 2:12 mark, the music becomes quite busy, incorporating several upward keyboard runs in the right hand, occasionally slowing back down albeit with a stronger attack and richer chords in the left.

In toto, then, a recital that begins strongly, dips into light classical schlock for five pieces, then rights its ship and sails on to a strong and interesting finish.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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The Michel Berthiaume Quartet is Uncompromised

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UNCOMPROMISED / BERTHIAUME: Uncooperative. 180. Cynical Buddhist. Randomiser. Sambain’t. Shifting Moods. MONK: Evidence  / Michel Berthiaume Quartet: Evan Shay, a-sax; Gentianne MG, pno; Levi Dover, bs; Michel Berthiaume, dm / self-produced CD, available at CD Baby

This album came my way directly from Michel Berthiaume, who contracted me via email. After a quick audition of the first track, I was hooked. This is my kind of jazz—complex, interesting and vital.

From the very first track, Uncooperative, one hears a tight band playing music in the Thelonious Monk fashion. Indeed, this could easily be a Monk tune, with its stiff, asymmetric rhythms and a bitonal base that never quite settles into any given key, although it skirts a few. Moreover, the very first solo, by pianist Gentianne MG, is Monkish in style as well, avoiding the use of pedal and using upper harmonics as its base. Where the music deviates from Monk is when Even Shay enters on alto sax and the tempo suddenly disintegrates to a crawl. Levi Dover then enters on bass, playing an a cappella solo, before the full band re-enters and the tempo picks up again. Shay’s next solo has a bit of Coltrane in it, reminding one of the legendary saxist’s stint with Monk in the late 1950s. Berthiaume’s happy drums propel it to a squealing finish.

180 starts with ominous, staccato piano chords in E minor, over which Shay adds some odd held notes before going high up in his range to play outside jazz. The rhythm section then sets up a strange beat (it sounds like 5/4 to me) as Shay explores further, using some ominous-sounding upward portamento slides. Dover further fragments the rhythm as the piano and drums play softly beneath him. When Shay re-enters, he plays an entirely different theme that contrasts with the first, leading the quartet into what can only be called a development section. This is truly innovative music. As Berthiaume put it in the liner notes, “when I compose, I do it without any commercial considerations for better or for worse!”

Indeed. Cynical Buddhist is even further out there, a slow piece played at a quiet level with more asymmetric rhythms but also with a tight structure. I applaud the fact that Berthiaume actually writes music and not just tunes comprised of a few riffs or licks to use as a launching pad for solos. This makes his music a much richer listening experience. After MG’s piano solo, Shay comes in playing a variant on both his solo and the initial theme. He is clearly a saxist who listens to what is going on around him and not just someone who “takes off” like a rocket ship into nothingness. Even when the rhythm slows down and avoids a strong beat at the 4:50 mark, Shay is still inventing unusual lines, now somewhat fragmented as the rhythm now is. Here, his playing somewhat resembles that of Lee Konitz at his most experimental. The piece then ends abruptly, in the middle of a phrase.

Randomiser begins even more slowly, taken at a Largo tempo, and seemingly without a set rhythm; the sax, piano and drums just seem to be floating out there in their own little universe of sound. Berthiaume becomes busier and busier on drums, slowly increasing the volume, before the tune suddenly finds its rhythm (another offbeat one) at about the 2:12 mark. This time, it is the pianist who embellishes and develops the music, using somewhat more random chords (and rootless ones at that) as a basis for his solo. The saxist returns at around the four-minute mark, playing single staccato notes while the drums plays an insistent, almost swing-beat rhythm behind him, then an odd, Monk-like motif, now at a faster clip, after which Shay improvises on it, using a few upper-range squeals here and there. Again, it ends abruptly, in the middle of nowhere.

There’s an almost march-like beat at the start of Thelonious Monk’s Evidence, the only composition on this CD not written by Berthiaume, but the innovative arrangement makes an almost entirely different piece of it. The piano’s block chords stick to a 4/4 rhythm while the bass and drums play a different one around it, then when MG enters we finally get a solid, swinging 4 for his improvisation. The leader takes a nice drum solo as well. This one will delight Monk fans.

Sambain’t also starts in a slow moody tempo, played initially in F, with block chords on the piano underlying the odd theme played by Shay, after which the saxist expands on it. The beat briefly switches to 3 at around the three-minute mark but then moves back again into 4, but occasionally with half a beat missing. This back-and-forth on rhythm continues throughout the remainder of the piece, and again the soloists help the music by sticking to its structure when they improvise.

The finale, Shifting Moods, is an uptempo number using an almost Stravinsky-like beat (stiff and regular, with occasional reductions in the length of measures) and structure (angular themes, sometimes complementary and sometimes juxtaposed). One example is how, at 2:35, the tempo suddenly decreases and we enter a phase played in a slow 3/4, yet again with occasional metric changes to throw the listener off, with Shay playing a repeated 10-note theme before the strict tempo suddenly disintegrates and we enter a formless chorus with the piano playing fantasia-like runs and chords over the roiling bass and drums. When we return to a 3 beat, it is with the piano playing a repeated 6-note motif while the sax holds long notes above it. This piece, too, end abruptly, but not in the middle of nowhere. There is an abrupt key change to F major as the sax ends on a high A.

This is clearly one of the most innovative jazz albums of the year, a real masterpiece from start to finish with no weak pieces or uninteresting solos.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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An Interesting Historic “Parsifal”

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WAGNER: Parsifal / George London, bs-bar (Amfortas); Arnold van Mill, bs (Titurel); Josef Greindl, bs (Gurnemanz); Ramón Vinay, ten (Parsifal); Toni Blankenheim, bar (Klingsor); Martha Mödl, sop (Kundry); Georgine von Milinkovic, alto (Voice); Paula Lechner, sop (Squire 1/Flower Maiden 3); Elisabeth Schärtel, mezzo (Squire 2/Flower Maiden 6); Hans Krotthammer, ten (Squire 3); Gerhard Stolze, ten (Squire 4); Ilse Hollweg, sop (Flower Maiden 1); Friedl Pöltinger, sop (Flower Maiden 2); Dorothea Siebert, mezzo (Flower Maiden 4); Lotte Rysanek, sop (Flower Maiden 5); Bayreuth Festival Chorus & Orch.; Hans Knappertsbusch, cond / Opera Depot OD 10811-4 (mono; live: Bayreuth, 1957)

This famous, or infamous, live recording of Wagner’s last opera has attained something of a legendary status over the decades despite its boxy mono sound, pops, crackles and bad tape noise due to the excellent all-star cast. Primary among these is George London, whose Amfortas is one of the most interesting ever committed to tape or disc, but there is also the super-intense Martha Mödl as the most complex and three-dimensional Kundry. Mödl, who got a late start to her career due to the Nazis (she refused to perform for them after her debut in the early ‘40s), pretty much blew out her voice by the late 1950s. Here she still has her high range—sort of, though not as solid as it was a couple of years earlier—but an incipient wobble has already started to creep in, but no matter when you have such an interesting characterization.

And here is an incentive for obtaining this recording ASAP. For this week only (April 20-27), you can download it for FREE from https://operadepot.com/. As soon as you go there you’ll get a pop-up window asking you to sign up for free newsletters and downloads. It’s well worth your time to do so if you really enjoy offbeat performances of mainstream operas. My taste in such is fairly limited, but I have ordered a few items from them in the past and am very pleased with their service.

There are other surprises in the cast as well: Chilean tenor-formerly-baritone-and-soon-to-be-basso Ramón Vinay in the title role, the highly versatile but vastly underrated baritone Toni Blankenheim as Klingsor, the outstanding German soprano Ilse Hollweg as the first Flower Maiden, Leonie Rysanek’s sister Lotte as another Flower Maiden and the great character tenor Gerhard Stolze as one of the Squires. The latter two don’t make that much of an impression in the context of the performance but they’re interesting nonetheless. In addition, Knappertsbusch, despite his slow pacing, conducts here with much more sweep and forward momentum than on his famous 1962 studio recording of the opera or the 1964 live performance with Jon Vickers as Parsifal.

As I say, however, the sound is really grit-level which, in a relatively quiet opera such as this, removes this performance from any serious competition for those who want a great recording of the opera. For that, I still recommend Daniel Barenboim’s outstanding Teldec recording with Waltraud Meier as Kundry, Siegfried Jerusalem as Parsifal, Matthias Hölle as Gurnemanz, José van Dam as Amfortas and Günter von Kannen as Klingsor. But if you turn up the treble on your stereo system, don’t make the volume loud enough to let the sound defects bother you and just let it play, you’ll be completely engrossed in this performance. The only weak performance here comes from veteran bass Josef Greindl as Gurnemanz. He had a rich, powerful instrument that never seemed to tire onstage no matter how long the role, but he was prone to a wobble that was sometimes not too bad (as in the 1955 Keilberth Götterdämmerung) and at other times quite awful, and here it is the latter although, as usual, his interpretation is fascinating as well.

Those who are mostly familiar with Vinay for his various performances of Otello, including those with Arturo Toscanini, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Sir Thomas Beecham and Fritz Busch, it may come as a surprise to know that he also sang Wagner and did so at Bayreuth, but he was an exceptional stage actor and Wieland Wagner was very fond of him. His calling-card role at the Wagner shrine was Siegmund, but he could and did sing other roles as well: Tannhäuser, Tristan (also opposite Mödl) and Parsifal. Next to Vickers, I find his Parsifal the most interesting I’ve ever heard although, also like Vickers and Lauritz Melchior, he had more than a touch of the baritone in his sound. In fact, it was more of a “bari-tenor.” He had a good metallic buzz up top, but also a richness to his sound that permeated the entire range.

So there you have it. As I explained in a reply to one commentator on my blog, I rarely recommend any mono recordings of Wagner unless they are of great dramatic quality and/or historic interest, and this Parsifal qualifies on both counts. Grab it while you can!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Pietsch & De Solaun Play Strauss & Shostakovich

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STRAUSS: Violin Sonata in Eb. SHOSTAKOVICH: Violin Sonata, Op. 134 / Franziska Pietsch, vln; Josu De Solaun, pno / Audite 97.759

Having several recordings I wanted to review being currently unavailable for download or streaming, I thought I might sample this disc and see how Franziska Pietsch and Josu De Solaun approached the Strauss Violin Sonata, which I happen to like. I was very impressed, so I went ahead and decided to review the whole disc.

Like so many modern violinists, the German-born Pietsch plays with a bright, almost Russian sound. Apparently the warmer, thicker style of German violin playing seems to be going the way of the dinosaur; Anne-Sophie Mutter seems to be one of the last of this breed. Of course, this is not out of place in German music; even Joseph Joachim, the first of the great German violinists to leave us records, had this sort of sound although he grew up in an era when string players only used vibrato on held notes and not in technically tricky passages, unlike Fritz Kreisler and those who followed in his footsteps, but decades of great French and Russian fiddlers with leaner tones have rather spoiled us. And Pietsch is certainly an expressive player. I would put her performance of the Strauss sonata on a par with those of Ginette Neveu or Heifetz, the premiere representatives in their time of the French and Russian schools, respectively. Indeed, at times her playing put me in mind of the kind of intensity that Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg has exhibited over lo these many decades of her storied career, and she is certainly one of my favorite violinists (I saw her in person four times and loved her in each of them).

As for de Solaun, he is also among my favorite of modern pianists. I gave a good review to his CD of Enescu pieces on Grand Piano GP707, and here he accompanies Pietsch with both tensile strength and a wonderful style. The two of them make every little detail count and stand out without unduly exaggerating anything, and their ability to work together hand-in-glove is simply astonishing. There is never a dull moment in any bar of this work, which in my view is one of Strauss’ finest pieces of his early period (1887-88). The way the duo builds the tension in the last movement is striking and unforgettable.

As for the Shostakovich sonata, this is an entirely different animal: mostly slow and melancholy, with the violinist playing very softly on the edge of the strings in the first movement. As de Solaun points out in the liner notes, the first movement actually uses the 12-tone scale, something that Shostakovich almost never did. De Solaun goes further, claiming that “the cool detachment of serialism…expresses the chiller [sic] of cold-bloodedness, the spirit of the author’s times.” This was a Cold War sonata, written in 1968 and dedicated to David Oistrakh on the occasion of his 60th birthday. Again, to quote De Solaun, “Shostakovich was a completely broken man. He no longer could play the piano due to a debilitating condition in his right hand (poliomyelitis), he had already suffered two heart attacks, several falls in which he broke both legs, a looming lung cancer due to his addiction to cigarettes, and he had been both celebrated but also censored and denounced by the Soviet government.”

But what I liked most about the work is that, for all its inherent sadness, the music is not dripping in bathos as so many of his works did. He seems to have internalized his gloom and thus transformed it somewhat. The piece has strong ties in its method of writing (except for the 12-tone scale) to many of his string quartets, which I also like. Oistrakh left us a powerful performance of this sonata from 1969 with long-time friend Sviatoslav Richter at the piano. De Solaun does not opt here for Richter’s powerful, almost granitic style of playing, but he doesn’t need to; what he gives us is emotional enough without going over the top, and Pietsch is right there with him. The fast second movement uses a great deal of chromatic movement but is not written as serial music, and has a stronger Russian character in its powerful Slavic rhythms. Here, both musicians pull out all the stops, with Pietsch attacking her strings with strong, edgy bowing and De Solaun doing a pretty good Richter imitation.

Though the final movement is marked “Largo – Andante,” tempo is not everything. It opens with a powerful statement, played forte, by the duo before the piano drops out, allowing the violin to state the theme pizzicato before stealthily moving back in with ominously stomping single bass notes, then it’s the violin that falls away while the piano plays a melancholy, very Russian theme to which the former adds its own counter-lines. This is played with a great deal of heart by the duo, which makes an indelible impression on the listener. Just before the five-minute mark, we’re suddenly in another world and another theme, this time in C major but with interesting harmonic changes. At 6:53 a gentle Slavic rhythm comes into the picture, played by the pianist, while the violinist plays a legato melody above it before moving into a double-time eighth-note theme. This eventually moves into very impassioned music at a louder volume for both soloists which builds to a tremendous climax before again falling back into a quieter, less frantic space.

Clearly, this is a powerful and interesting disc, and I hope it gets wide attention.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music

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