Rathaus’ Unusual Violin Sonatas Recorded


RATHAUS: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2. Suite for Violin & Piano / Karolina Piatkowska-Nowicka, violinist; Bogumiła Weretka-Bajdor, pianist / Dux 1347

How many classical listeners have ever heard, or heard of, Karol Rathaus? Well, OK, the name doesn’t really suggest a fun experience. You almost expect the kind of well-written but turgid music that Max Reger churned out by the double handful. But, as it turns out, Rathaus wrote music that was both angular and modern on the one hand and rhythmically buoyant on the other. A strange combination, to say the least.

One of Franz Schreker’s favorite pupils at the Academy of Performing Arts and Music in Vienna, Rathaus followed him to the Berlin Music Academy. Upon graduation, Rathaus accepted a position as a teacher of composition and music theory at the Berlin University of the Arts, where he stayed until Hitler and the Nazis assumed power (pace Wikipedia).

Rathaus’ music combines superb form with deep feeling. It’s difficult to listen to these pieces without being emotionally drawn in; in this respect he was different from the equally brilliant Erwin Schulhoff, whose music is brilliant and fascinating but works strictly on a surface level. Of course, the emotional impact of any music is as much dependent on the performer as the composer, and in this case Rathaus is fortunate yo have two such passionate champions as violinist Piatkowska-Nowicka, whose lean, brilliant timbre explores these scores with great intensity, and pianist Weretka-Bajdor, who plays with a wonderful feeling for line and mood. Because of these scores’ angular construction the music is difficult to describe in words, but one thing I particularly liked about them was the fact that the musical construction is clear and easy to follow even when the melodic line and harmonies are not. This helps considerably in making a connection with any listener who is not immediately negative towards them due to their style.

Indeed, as these works progress, the depth and profundity of Rathaus’ music grabs you more and more. It’s so rare to find works of this quality in such great performances nowadays that I almost lost track of my “critical faculties” and just listened for the sheer enjoyment of it. To me, that’s the mark of a truly great recording. You don’t even feel the need to analyze because every note and phrase has a meaning and a message. One detail I particularly loved, though, was the way the third movement of the second Violin Sonata followed so quickly on the heels of the mysterious, brooding final note of the second movement. That was sheer genius on Rathaus’ part.

The Suite for Violin & Piano takes a deliberately less serious tone than the sonatas. Rathaus’ musical syntax is pretty much the same, but here he penetrates less emotionally, preferring to ride the surface of the music. Ironically, this would be a powerful violin sonata for almost any modern composer I can think of, because despite the less penetrating insight the music is extremely well written and fascinating. The last movement is a virtual moto perperual of modern harmonies in a bouncing rhythm—at least until the final E major chord on the piano, outside the home key, which suddenly ends the piece in the middle of nowhere!

Despite the brevity of this review, I cannot praise this album highly enough. You need to hear these performances of this music.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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