Weinberg’s Violin Sonatas Given a New Interpretation

Weinberg cover

WEINBERG: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1-6. Violin Sonatina / Grigory Kalinovsky, violinist; Tatiana Goncharova, pianist / Naxos 8.572320-21

Having just reviewed a set of these violin sonatas by violinist Yuri Kalnits and pianist Michael Csányi-Wills on Toccata Classics last year, I was rather surprised to see a new set pop up on Naxos. From the first notes of the first sonata, I felt that I was in for a letdown, because the sound is so incredibly dry and boxy that it sounds as if it were recorded in someone’s bathroom (with the shower curtain drawn to cut off any natural room reverb).

But as the performances progressed, I became adjusted to the sound and, more importantly, was drawn in to the almost blistering emotion of their playing. Kalnits and Csányi-Wills were very fine indeed, and from a standpoint of sonics I like their recordings much better, but this one has a very Russian sense of drama and emotion. The musical flow also sounds a bit more connected in terms of legato, although this is probably the result of the very close miking and rather airless sound. Moreover, Kalinovsky seems to have a fuller, almost viola-like timbre, which gives the lower passages more density and weight.

Weinberg 6aGoncharova’s pianism lacks some of the variety of color of her counterpart on the Toccata Classics set, but she compensates for this with an almost Sviatoslav Richter-like sense of drama. Played this way, Weinberg’s violin sonatas tend to sound closer to the music of his friend Shostakovich than the Kalnits versions. I was surprised to note on the back cover insert that although this set is only now being released, these recordings were all made between April and November of 2010. To wait nearly a decade to get your records out must surely have been deeply frustrating to these two artists, but I really do suspect that the ultra-dry sound had something to do with it.

Both Kalinovsky and Goncharova ride the wave of this music like an expert surfer who knows how to handle the crest of a really big breaker without wiping out. The pianist is in some cases a bit more subdued here than on the Toccata set, but only in soft passages where her variety of tone is not as subtle. By and large, she acts as a sympathetic listener to the violinist’s shifts of mood and passion. She does not lead, but wherever he goes, she goes too. In the third sonata, where the piano has a long solo in the slow movement (“Andantino”), this creates an interesting effect. Divorced of Kalinovsky’s drive Goncharova tends to drift, expression-wise, as if she felt lost. But that seems to be the nature of this music, so her interpretation fits in. It’s a very lonely piece. Later on in the movement, the piano solo returns, with the violin playing a rather forlorn accompaniment, with strange plucked chords. Indeed, even the third movement of this sonata, taken at a quicker pace, has a sad sort of wistful nostalgia about it.

Weinberg 5aNot so the sixth sonata, which I hadn’t previously heard. This one, a single movement running only 12 minutes, is all tension and passion. The violin plays a cappella for the first 1:40 in a series of serrated arpeggios that sound as if the instrument, or its player, were in severe pain. When the piano enters it is equally intense at first, but eventually calms things down before the tense violin returns. This is by far one of the most modernistic pieces Weinberg ever wrote, and Kalinovsky and Goncharova play it superbly.

Making a qualitative judgment between these two obviously outstanding sets is very difficult for, despite the difference in sound quality, the artistic approach in each is simply different. Neither one is “better” than the other because both illuminate different qualities in the music. Aside from the sonics, the difference between these sets lies in the extras included. The Kalnits/Csányi-Wills set includes the Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes, the Violin Sonatina and both Solo Violin Sonatas (the latter first-ever recordings), while this one only includes the Violin Sonatina as an extra. Perhaps that may affect your decision to acquire the Toccata set. As for the sound, it is easily remedied and I’m surprised Naxos didn’t think of it. Just run these tracks through an audio editor, add a small amount (note what I said: a SMALL amount) of reverb and echo, and voilà, you have more natural-sounding recordings. But who knows? Perhaps the artists balked at this, which is why they sat on the shelf for seven years. Oddly enough, the dry sound affects the soft passages more than the loud ones, making both the violin and piano timbres sound claustrophobic.

But maybe I’m dwelling too much on sound. From an artistic standpoint, as I say, both are valid, and I certainly like what this duo does here. There is also the question of expense: the Toccata set, being more complete, is going to run over three CDs (the third not out yet) while this one is self-contained on two discs. The choice is yours. My personal preference is for Kalnits/Csányi-Wills in the first two sonatas and, of course, the extras not included on Naxos, but insofar as a complete violin-piano sonatas go, Kalinovsky/Goncharova are just fine. If you buy these sets via downloads, you’ll have more flexibility as to what you choose to record and keep.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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