Weinberg’s Violin Sonatas Unusual, Moving

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WEINBERG: Violin Sonata No. 1. Solo Violin Sonata No. 1. Violin Sonata No. 4. Violin Sonatina, Op. 46 / Yuri Kalnits, violinist; Michael Csányi-Wills, pianist / Toccata Classics TOCC0007

WEINBERG: Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes, Op. 47 (version for violin & piano). Violin Sonata No. 2. Solo Violin Sonata No. 2. Violin Sonata No. 5 / Yuri Kalnits, violinist; Michael Csányi-Wills, pianist / Toccata Classics TOCC0026

Here’s a situation where my love of a particular composer led me to want to review a new release, only to discover that an earlier incarnation by other artists was far superior. I started out on this adventure with the two-CD set on CPO of Miecyzław Weinberg’s violin sonatas Nos. 1-3 and 6, along with the Two-Violin Sonata and the Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes, played by violinists Stefan and Gundula Kirpal and pianist Andreas Kirpal. I liked the music—of course, since Weinberg is one of my all-time favorite composers—but had some real issues with Stefan Kirpal’s violin playing. He possesses a light tone, which is OK, but every time he ascended into the extreme high range his playing sounded thin and whiny and at times a bit flat. Not knowing these works, I assumed that this was because they were based on folk music that had that “in between” sort of pitch, but then I discovered the above set, issued in 2010 (Vol. 1) and 2013 (Vol. 2), and voilà—I suddenly “got” the music with much greater force.

The fact is that Yuri Kalnits has a much firmer, richer tone, more like Leonid Kogan or David Oistrakh, both violinists who Weinberg knew and wrote for. Indeed, I even liked pianist Michael Csányi-Wills’ powerful, more aggressive playing better than Andreas Kirpal’s. Thus I switched gears in the middle of the review and flipped over from the Kirpal family to Kalnits.

Now, you may prefer the Kirpals’ performance style and approach; that’s certainly your prerogative; but if you’re one of those people who are into Historically-Informed Historical Performance practice, then you have to consider the Kalnitz-Csányi-Wills recordings more authentic, because these performers are simulating the kind of musicians, and performance styles, that Weinberg wrote for. How ‘bout that, huh?

If there is one thing these works prove, it is that not only was Weinberg influenced by his friend Shostakovich but that even in his earlier opuses—the first Violin Sonata is Op. 12 and the second Op. 15—he was already an unusual composer, approaching composition from his own different perspective. He may have used the harmonic language of Shostakovich, but the end result was more structurally “bound” and less heart-on-sleeve whining than his Soviet contemporary. There is also a good deal of humor, much of it subtle but some of it overt, in these works. This was a quality that disappeared from Weinberg’s work as he aged. Being virtually neglected by the Soviet system took its toll on his self-confidence.

I just couldn’t stop listening to Kalnits play this music. It had a sweep, and passion, that just caught me up and transported me…an effervescence, if you will, that bespeaks a performer who doesn’t just like this music but loves it, and wants all his hearers to love it, too. Comparing these performances to the Kirpals is like comparing two rich-toned singers performing “Suoni la tromba” from I Puritani to a couple of lightweight French singers of the 1920s doing the same music. Something is lost, no matter how wonderful the lighter voices are, in emotional connection to the material. It’s a matter of being able to draw out the feeling in the music via subtle gradations of tone and the ability to draw out the music with bold colors and impassioned attacks. In Weinberg’s music, no matter how subtle or technical the demands are on the performer, inevitably it is the emotion of the music that combines with the form to produce an effect on one’s receptors, and in this respect I find Kalnits far superior.

Excellent examples are the two Solo Violin Sonatas, works not (yet) recorded by Stefan Kirpal. These pieces are the heirs to Eugene Ysaÿe’s marvelous solo sonatas, which call for a big tone and tremendous sweep and power in their performance. As I sat listening, rapt, to Kalnits play these, I just couldn’t imagine Kirpal playing them. It would sound too much like Elly Ameling trying to sing Brünnhilde (as Nellie Melba once actually did, at the Metropolitan Opera, to her and the audience’s great dismay). Without having seen the score, I wondered if the portamento that Kalnits used in the second movement of the first sonata was a personal interpretation or not, but it suited the material. Interestingly, I didn’t feel that the first sonata had much in common with the Bach Solo Sonatas and Partidas, where the soloist is constantly called upon to provide his/her own counterpoint, but rather a more melodically conceived work. This doesn’t mean that it isn’t rhythmic, only that there are only occasional instances where one feels that the music is anything but a solo violin piece to which once could easily add a piano accompaniment. Most unusually, the “Lento” movement isn’t slow at all, but agitated and angular, with blunt shards of notes splitting the air with an almost brutal attack, the one quiet passage in the movement sounding sad and rather sinister. This movement also leads without a break into the finale, marked “Presto,” and this, too, is dark and slightly menacing rather than a jolly ride-out. Weinberg was nothing if not unpredictable!

The Fourth Violin Sonata which follows is definitely mature Weinberg: it has that same quality I’ve come to admire in so much of his music, the tonal-lyrical line tinged with melancholy. Indeed, the first movement opens with a surprisingly long piano solo, almost two minutes before the violin enters, setting a mood that must not be disturbed by the addition of the second instrument. And it is here that Kalnits reveals that he does indeed have a tender side, despite his strong Russian training on the instrument. The opening melody is eventually broken up into little rhythmic cells as part of the development, with the piano playing gently syncopated figures spaced a couple of octaves apart: bass note in the left hand, single note in the right, continuing thus until a minor chord comes crashing down, leading to an a cappella violin passage before the duo reunites playing much sparser, more delicate figures, then the violin joins the piano for a short while playing those syncopated figures. A very strange piece, to say the least…almost like a self-contained rhapsody or nocturne, not meant to be paired with any other movements. Yet there is a second movement, and this is all motion and energy, exactly the opposite of the first. This is the most Shostakovich-like piece on the first CD, but modeled after good Shostakovich. What an exhilarating ride it is! It put me in mind, a little, of Berlioz’ “Ride to the abyss” in La Damnation de Faust…at least, until it very suddenly switched gears in the middle to become an “Adagio tenuto molto rubato,” a change of direction so unexpected that it almost comes as a shock. And this, in turn, leads to a soft, melancholy “Adagio primo,” suddenly bringing us back to the thematic material and mood of the first movement. You talk about an odd work!

By contrast, the first movement of the Violin Sonatina—written after the Fourth Sonata—is almost straightforward in its rhythmic pulse and musical direction, albeit in a minor key to start with, so typical of Weinberg. One of the most unusual aspects of his scores, no matter how multi-directional they sound, is that the listener gets the impression that thought followed thought in a linear progression, i.e., that he wrote his music sequentially, going from start to finish without having to retrace his steps in the creative process. Weinberg just had so many ideas and musical devices at his fingertips that he was able to create his own sound-world and somehow make it relevant to listeners who were not inside his head. Pure genius…as in the second movement, which begins “Lento,” then jumps to an “Allegro” section before returning to the initial tempo. There’s so much feeling packed into this music that it can almost overwhelm the sensitive listener. This “sonatina” concludes with another multi-tempo movement, starting “Allegro moderato” and ending “Lento.” Yes, some of his ideas here tend towards a lighter feeling, but by and large this is an extremely complex piece for a sonatina, not only in form but also in emotional content.

The Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes, I think, works better in its original orchestral version, but I still like the way Kalnits plays it here, with plenty of Eastern European schmaltz and just the touch of a tear in the violin. The Violin Sonata No. 2 is unusual for Weinberg because it is not terribly unusual. Though the second movement does had that piquant melancholy about it so typical of his work, the opening movement is almost cheerful by his standards, although shot through with harmonic changes reminiscent of Prokofiev. Indeed, I felt that this sonata owed more to the older composer than to Shostakovich, no matter how close he was to the latter. In the third movement there is an unusual passage where the piano’s “walking bass” leads the violin in a rhythmic passage wherein they play in harmony. There is yet another passage where the piano plays rhythmically while the violin whines in the upper stratosphere before being reduced to pizzicato commentary, but near the end both instruments explode with energy and a bit of anger in the violent conclusion.

The Solo Violin Sonata No. 2 is, to my ears, more rhythmically oriented than the first, and indeed uses the instrument to create its own bass line and counterpoint. It is both sunnier in mood and more enigmatic in thematic material at the same time: note, for instance, the quirky second movement, titled “Rests,” where the violin interrupts itself to stop-start several times, often juxtaposing both themes and mood in a quirky manner. How very Weinbergian! The next movement, “Interval,” has the violin playing spiky vertical lines for a minute and a half, followed in turn by “Repliques” with its surprisingly tender lyricism. As I’ve said, Weinberg was nothing if not surprising to listen to, as evidenced by the sudden flurry of pizzicato notes near the end. “Accompaniment” is just that, a string of figures that sound like an accompaniment to something, but not a structured melody as such. By this point in the performance, I was listening as much if not more to the music than to Kalnits’ phrasing and technique, not because they weren’t impressive but because it was the music, and not the performer, that so often grabbed me and reined me in. I’m sure the reader can envision the music in the last two movements from their titles, “Invocation” and “Syncopations,” although the former also seemed intent on emphasizing spiky vertical lines, just in a slower and less agitated manner than in “Rests.”

The Violin Sonata No. 5, being mature Weinberg, has an even deeper feeling of sadness and melancholy about it, yet it is still a very moving piece played with great feeling by the two musicians. Although I may have slighted Csányi-Wills a bit in this review, I certainly don’t mean to, as his contributions to the overall impact of these performances mean a great deal to me, and I’m sure if Weinberg had lived to hear them he’d have liked them very much. I was particularly fascinated by the almost jazzy way he plays the syncopations at the beginning of the second movement of this sonata, for instance; it shows not only a command of technique but an understanding of the unusual motor rhythms that Weinberg borrowed from Klezmer music, rhythms that later influenced jazz in the Swing Era. Moreover, the way he and Kalnits interact here and in the other sonatas bespeaks a very serious pianist for whom artistic excellence is more important than personal glory. The last movement is the most folk-music-like, bouncy and almost happy in mood, yet once again with unusual changes in rhythm and shifts of perspective.

My guess is that Kalnits hasn’t yet recorded Violin Sonatas Nos. 3 and 6 due to commercial reasons…despite the excellence of this music, it certainly won’t appeal to the average listener who just wants to hear the old German classics. That’s a shame, and I sincerely hope that Vol. 3 of this series is in the works and, possibly, in the can even as I write this.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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